Are Actuaries in Fact Paragons of Rationality When It Comes to the Prospects for Radical Life Extension?

The output of the actuarial community often demonstrates its members to be ahead of the curve when it comes to the near future of medicine and great uncertainty over coming trends in life expectancy. This is a time of very rapid progress in the underlying biotechnologies applicable to medical research, and also a time in which both the aging research community and broader medical community are beginning a sweep change in their approach to age-related disease. There is every reason to expect that the near future of human adult life expectancy will look nothing like the past fifty years of slow and fairly steady growth: once the research community begins to actually try to address the causes of aging through medicine, then all bets are off. A likely outcome, indeed the outcome I'd expect if repair-based strategies like the SENS research projects gain large-scale funding and support, is a large upward leap in life span with comparatively little advance warning.

Actuaries are, in theory at least, aware of all of this: it is their job to take account of uncertainty in their projections. Enormous sums of money flow through life insurance companies, pension funds, and other areas of business related to life span. There is thus an equally enormous incentive for these organizations and their allies to understand the state of progress in medicine. Having a solid grasp of the uncertainty of the future is necessary to these businesses, and for many years the actuarial community has been sounding the alarm on rising uncertainty in their projections. This is a direct result of the uncertainty inherent in medical development during a time of rapid progress and strategic upheaval in the research community. Comparatively small differences in funding or happenstance collaboration today could dramatically shift the timing of the future advent of practical rejuvenation treatments.

We all know that the average person in the street is surprisingly disinterested in living longer in good health, and perhaps even hostile to the concept. This is one of the challenges we face as advocates seeking greater support for research to bring an end to the suffering and frailty that presently accompanies old age. Are actuaries any more bold than the rest of the public when it comes to radical life extension through progress in medicine? Possibly not:

Longevity expectations in the pension fund, insurance, and employee benefits industries

Considerable progress has been made in many areas of biomedical science since the 1960s, suggesting likely increases in life expectancy and decreases in morbidity and mortality in the adult population. These changes may pose substantial risks to the pensions and benefits industries. While there is no significant statistical evidence demonstrating rapid decreases in mortality rates, there are conflicting opinions among demographers and biogerontologists on the biological limits of the human lifespan and trends in life expectancy.

We administered a survey of the International Employee Benefits Association (IEBA), a large, international industry group. Industry professionals employed by consulting (35%), insurance (24%), pension (14%), and other (27%) companies responded to 32 questions. Respondents showed reasonably conservative views on the future of longevity and retirement, including that for women. The respondents formed their personal longevity expectations based on their family history and, to a lesser degree, on the actuarial life tables. Most of the sample expressed no desire to life past age 100 years, even if the enabling technologies required to maintain a healthy youthful state were available, and only a few respondents in the sample expressed a desire to live for the maximum period (at least) offered by the survey question. The majority of the respondents would not undergo any invasive procedures, and only 56% of the respondents would opt for noninvasive therapies to extend their healthy lifespans to 150 years of age if these were available.

The results of this study strengthen the argument that the captains of these industries may not use the recent advances in biomedical sciences when forming their personal longevity expectations and engaging in corporate financial planning. Moreover, most of these decision makers do not even appear to show much interest in significantly extending their own longevity should such technologies become available. Considering the recent advances in all areas of biomedical science, the rapid convergence of information technology with biomedicine, and the propagation of these technologies into mainstream clinical and consumer markets, this appears shortsighted, if only from a business perspective. Quite simply, one could lose a lot of money - to the level of affecting the future of the global financial system - by failing to predict these trends correctly. All stakeholders, including pension fund providers, insurance companies, governments, and individuals, may benefit from accelerating biomedical advances and investing in projects that increase productive longevity, or at least from taking such research and development work into account when projecting mortality rates into the future.


"[...] this appears shortsighted, if only from a business perspective. Quite simply, one could lose a lot of money - to the level of affecting the future of the global financial system - by failing to predict these trends correctly."

That would be true in a free market, but the governments of the world have turned away from a free market system of allowing businesses to experience the consequences of their bad financial decisions. The quotation itself hints at this: that allowing the free market outcome would endanger "the global financial system."

What does this mean for businesses? It means they should always deliberately underestimate large risks, especially when the risk is comparable in intensity across the industry. These risks will be externalized onto society through the political process, so there is no reason to take account of them.

Perverse incentives mean that actuaries can best serve insurance company employers by giving bad predictions (in the sense of underestimating major catastrophic risk scenarios). Good predictions would be a liability — there would be no reason to follow the course of action that these predictions would recommend in a free market, however, if a paper trail proved that actuaries had foreseen the risk then there could be increased executive liability for not hedging the risk.

Posted by: José at February 8th, 2015 1:39 PM

José: Your statement makes sense in the context of things like the financial crisis, but the situation depicted here is actually the reverse in regards to the life insurance industry; they'll find themselves with an unprecedented windfall as they simply stop having to pay out so much. In fact, it might even be wise for companies insuring people for millions of dollars to revise their policies to pay for life extension treatments that cost far less.

On the other hand, pension funds will start getting hit, although gradually. You'll know that the science is on the right track when pension funds start warning pensionholders against it. And then there's Social Security, which will have to be dramatically altered.

Posted by: Slicer at February 8th, 2015 2:06 PM

Slicer: Insurance companies also have annuities and other categories of exposure that move inversely with longevity compared to life insurance. These, however, don't completely cancel each other out. With a life insurance policy the best case is you can defer payment arbitrarily far into the future. With an annuity, the worst case is you *have to continue paying*. The exposures can balance out in the near-term but still leave a large exposure in radical life-extension scenarios. Pension funds also rely on insurance companies to assume some kinds of risk on their behalf. I confess I'm not exactly sure how all these arrangements shake out.

I stand by my original analysis that the companies have a good reason to neglect some risk scenarios. They can put their fingers in their ears and if radical life extension comes to fruition, they can claim it was some kind of "Black Swan" event while ignoring the people who did foresee it.

Posted by: José at February 8th, 2015 2:41 PM

Then it's the same as for the pension problem: the change is gradual and not likely to provoke the same kind of "we need to do this now now now or the whole system fails" reaction of the financial bailout. I'm not sure how they could possibly convince the government to save them through a direct infusion of cash.

It's much more likely that there's going to be a legislatively determined, arbitrary cut-off age or date for these things to simply stop paying. "If your contract came into existence before ____, it only applies until the year ____ or until you are ___ years old".

Also, radical life extension will not all come at once. People are going to stop suffering from some age-related ailments while still dying of others.

Posted by: Slicer at February 8th, 2015 2:47 PM

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