The Centenarian Project

Can you live to 100? Would you want to live to 100? Ready or not, the age of the centenarian is here. Centenarians are now the fastest growing segment of our population. There are about 70,000 centenarians in the United States and within 45 years there will be more than 1 million — that’s 1 million Americans over the age of 100 and millions more in their 80s and 90s. If you’re of a certain gender your chances of reaching 100 are increased; four out of every five centenarians are women.

Experts on actuarial science, genealogy, demography, biology, economics and medicine have an exciting but troubling message: Americans are at the beginning of a longevity revolution and we’re not prepared, either as individuals or as a society. It’s going to cost more to live longer. You may have to work longer before retiring.

The good news is that the age wave is creating a new life stage that provides unprecedented opportunity for personal enrichment. Life expectancy has increased without increasing the length of disability. In other words, we’re not just adding years, we’re adding active years. Having more time to spend is great. Not having enough money to spend can be disastrous. Today’s aging baby boomers will face unprecedented post-retirement risks — what actuaries call “longevity risk,” the very real and rising risk of outliving your money.

So, how long might we live? Lifespan is defined as the age of the oldest living individual of a species. For humans it’s 122 years. That’s how old Madame Jeanne Calment was when she died in France in August of 1987. That’s an impressive record that may not last long thanks to gene therapy, advances in medicine, and new biotechnologies. An increasing number of scientists believe there may not be an upper limit to human lifespan and that modifying or even reversing the aging process is now only a matter of time.

Doctors say genes account for 30 percent of one’s longevity and the other 70 percent can be chalked up to lifestyle. To put the prescription for a long life in simple terms, do what your mother told you — eat well, exercise regularly, don’t smoke and limit alcohol but don’t clean your plate. Mom was wrong on that one. We are a nation of overeaters and extra weight does not lead to extra years.

Gerontologists have noticed another common denominator among the very old. They’re optimists — they love having fun. Life to them is a joy, not a burden. They don’t internalize problems. They have strong social support and they tend to engage in meaningful activity.

So, let’s get to the bottom line. You should recalculate your financial needs immediately, assuming that you will live to at least 85, but don’t worry while you’re doing it. Adding years to your life isn’t nearly as important as adding life to your years. How can you do both?

Join us as we search for the answers in the Centenarian Project.