You may live to be 100: What that means for your health, money and family

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By 2050, the world’s population of centenarians — those age 100 or older — will total 3.7 million, up from 593,000 in 2022, according to estimates from the United Nations.

That fast-growing population will have an effect on healthcare, personal finance, retirement, politics and intergenerational dynamics.

In his new book “The Big 100: The New World of Super-Aging,” retired journalist William Kole looks at both the bleak and the bright spots of an aging world. He explores how lifestyle and genetics play a role in longevity, and how unfair it is that a long life tends to be the privilege of white people, with 80% of Americans who live to 100 belonging to that group.

Kole talked with sources including anthropologist Jane Goodall, longevity expert Thomas Perls and a 112-year-old supercentenarian, Herlda Senhouse. 

In addition to urging all of us to drop everything and fight climate change in order to protect the lives of our children and grandchildren, Kole explores how long people can live — and how long we should live. 

MarketWatch: What’s your personal wish for how you want to age and die?

Kole: To 100 or beyond, but with a big caveat: I want my healthspan to match my lifespan. I want to be mobile and in a reasonable level of health. And I want to live as long as I don’t run out of money.

MarketWatch: What role do you see genetics playing in longevity, versus lifestyle?

Kole: It’s a combination. Our habits, our diet, our exercise — our sun exposure, which people don’t talk about much — those things that are in our control matter. That plays a 75% role in getting us to 90. From 90 to 100, genetics really comes into play. And when you’re talking about the more remarkable ages, that’s almost entirely genetics.

Author William Kole.

MarketWatch: A lot of attention is paid to the ages of politicians and presidential candidates. How much of this is relevant and worthy of debate? And where do you stand on age limits?

Kole: It’s a relevant and important discussion to have. Age limits are fraught with problems, barring careers such as commercial pilots. The Constitution doesn’t stipulate maximum ages, though it stipulates minimum ages for some offices. We banned age discrimination in the workplace in 1967.

There are plenty of examples: Nancy Pelosi stepped down as speaker of the House at 82, but she’s very vibrant. The discussion should be looking at biological age rather than chronological age. Mental competency tests are outrageously bad. But term limits? Let’s talk about those.

Read: Are you 95 and fit? This ‘SuperAgers’ study wants to hear from you.

MarketWatch: By 2034, the U.S. will have more senior citizens than young people for the first time in history. How will this affect those dire Social Security solvency forecasts, retirement planning and fiscal policy?

Kole: Dire is the operative word. The average person has saved $30,000 for retirement, which is woefully insufficient. The Social Security trust funds will be depleted in less than a decade and if nothing is done, that will mean a 23% pay cut. The average Social Security check is $1,688, so a 23% pay cut is almost $400 a month. Congress will eventually intervene. But why not now?

MarketWatch: What about caregiving for older adults? Already it’s at crisis levels. What happens when we’re all living longer?

Kole: Care is broken in the U.S. compared with other countries, if you look at how poorly we rank. There’s a lot of talk about American exceptionalism, but we are not exceptional in taking care of the older population. The gold standard is to stay in place and age at home. Assisted living is outrageously expensive. I’m in the Northeast, where it can run $8,000 a month. Medicare doesn’t cover that. The strain on the system is going to be immense. The specter of elder poverty is looming large on a scale we’ve never seen before.

MarketWatch: Should we want to live to 100? Not everyone will be skydiving and living life at its fullest at that age.

Kole: There’s bleakness and there’s brightness. Betty White was making us all laugh until the end, and she was 99, almost 100. I was thinking about the composer John Williams, who is still working and [this year] was the oldest person nominated for an Oscar. There are many more of us contributing. So there are bright spots. Some of us will not be healthy. But Alzheimer’s and dementia are not inevitable as we age.

There’s a fascinating study in the Netherlands about people who were 100 to 108 and who showed no signs of cognitive impairment. They agreed as part of the study to have their brains studied after they died, and [the researchers] found no evidence of the plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer’s — or if they found them, the person had not exhibited any impairment. If the pharmaceutical industry could replicate that — imagine.

It depends on whether we social engineer things now or kind of ignore the problems and don’t fix Social Security, don’t fix Medicare, don’t fix the inequities seen among people of color.

MarketWatch: What can we learn from “blue zones,” places where people have the highest life expectancies — and where people don’t just live longer but live healthier, pretty active lives in those later years?

Kole: What we can do is optimize our chance to live longer, healthier lives. The Mediterranean diet is a factor. They deal with stress really well — toxic stress is the enemy of longevity. They don’t smoke. They’re not overweight or obese. Many of the people in the blue zones stop eating when they’re 80% full. What if we all did that? They have good sleep hygiene, close family ties, community — all things we can mimic.

Read: ‘Live to 100’ Netflix docuseries on the Blue Zones Diet is blowing up. Learn the secret.

MarketWatch: How does ageism factor in? There’s so much negativity around aging. Will people want to live to be 100? 

Kole: Ageism plays a large role right now. Most people have experienced it in 2023. There’s a report by the United Nations that ageism has a negative effect on our health. It can keep us from getting promoted; it can affect our livelihood. We live in a very youth-oriented culture. To reconcile aging is a tricky path. As many more of us — our friends and family and neighbors — live to be 100, attitudes may change, but the vanguard of centenarians may have it harder.

MarketWatch: Do you think there will be a greater push for Alzheimer’s drugs and treatments as the population ages?

Kole: I think Alzheimer’s is already a well-funded disease. It’s already getting attention. There are 6 million people in the country with Alzheimer’s, which is a pretty small part of the overall population. The ripple effect is profound for families and caregivers, of course. But it’s probably likely we won’t let up on it. Older politicians running things tend to focus on things near and dear to them.

MarketWatch: Is there anything else you’d like to highlight from your book?

Kole: The racial inequity of aging really upsets me. It seems immoral to consider that white people live six years longer than Black people in the U.S. Eight in 10 people who live to 100 are white. We have to find a way to close that gap. There are also considerations around generational wealth. That may go away — if we’re living to 100, will we really have a nice bit of cash to leave to our kids and grandkids to buy a home or pay for college? How will that affect future generations? 

Editor’s note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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