David Stipp on Anti-Aging Science and the Need to Hedge Longevity Risk in Retirement

David Stipp has written about science, medicine, the environment and biotech since 1982 for The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Salon, Science and other publications. He led Fortune’s science and medical coverage from 1995 to 2005 as a senior writer, and from 1982 to 1995 covered science and medicine as a staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal. Over the past decade he has written extensively on the science of aging.  In 1998 he won a National Association of Science Writers’ award for best magazine article, and in 1993-4 served as a Knight Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

David’s most recent book, The Youth Pill, tells the story of anti-aging drugs.  The book provides a grounded, accessible and thoroughly enjoyable account of the science, the scientists, the commercial ventures, and the larger social and economic implications of anti-aging drugs.


Annuity Digest:  You have spent years researching and writing about the technologies that drive human longevity.  Based on your experience, how important is it for people to have financial protection for longevity risk?

David Stipp:  I am actually in the process of organizing a panel for a conference that will focus on these issues.

This is a fairly easy question—the answer is that it is terribly important.  I would hasten to add, irrespective of any of the developments discussed in my book, that we are living longer and that for the boomer generation this natural trend—which may be boosted by advances in anti-aging medication—guarantees that many people face serious risk of running out of money late in life.

Annuity Digest:  What are your thoughts on the use of private annuities as tools to hedge longevity risk and provide guaranteed lifetime income?

David Stipp:  First, I would not count myself as expert in this area.  Still, as citizen of universe who has hung around with people who know about this stuff, I am convinced that annuities are the number one way to manage this risk.

An interesting anecdote involves a recent report on a British bookmaker that stopped taking odds on people who had reached age 90 of living to 100—they were simply losing too much money.

Mark Hulbert provided a very well written short piece on this issue.  If you are 65 and thinking about having nest egg lasting life, you have 1 in 3 chance of living to 90 which is 5 years beyond average life expectancy.  This 1 in 3 chance is a huge risk if you’re banking on not living much past the average life span and have put aside a nest egg sized to that expectation.

I don’t know a lot about all the different options on annuities, but as Mark Hulbert pointed out, fixed life annuities are very important financial instruments that should receive attention by many more people.

Annuity Digest:  You appear skeptical of extreme longevity scenarios such as those described by Singularity advocates. Can you provide a high-level estimate of the possible longevity increases that may play-out over the next 10-20 years as a result of anti-aging medicines?

David Stipp:  I am pretty conservative about the prospects of reaching the promise and potential described in the book. 

The reality is that it will take billions of dollars to the conduct clinical trials required to leverage the very promising science around anti-aging. 

We cannot do a lifespan study in humans because will take 50 years or more.  The research and clinical trials may happen within 20 years, but it is contingent on us as a society committing to this objective.  This societal and political commitment has not yet occurred.  Aging is still seen as this intractable process we have to accept despite all of the recent science that indicates otherwise. 

Overall, I would say that there is maybe a 50 percent chance of reaching the promise and potential of this science within the next 20 years.  Further, I want to clearly qualify this by saying that I am not talking about radical rejuvenation or life-spans reaching 150 years.  What I am referring to in terms of promise or potential is the notion of medicine postponing all diseases of aging by about seven years which would have an overall huge impact.

Annuity Digest:  Would you say that there is a general lack of awareness and appreciation—both among businesses and the general population—of the increases in longevity that are possible in the near-term?

David Stipp:  Yes, there is a general lack of awareness among both individuals and businesses. 

That said, some businesses do recognize what is going on and are trying to capture the wisdom and experience of the boomer generation as they retire.  Boomers retiring represents a huge sunk cost in terms of accrued education and training that we are about to lose.  We simply cannot let that happen.  Certain forward looking businesses are taking action to prevent this from happening and I hope they succeed.

Annuity Digest:  Why is there a lack of capital and political will to carry-out major clinical tests of anti-aging drugs?

David Stipp:  This is complex science.  Many of most important developments have taken place during the past few years. 

People are not paying that much attention for two reasons.  First, there is the snake oil aspect which serves as a general deterrent.  Second, the medical world understandably focuses on recognized diseases. Aging is not recognized as a disease, or an indication for treatment with drugs by the FDA. The inability to sell anti-aging drugs as high-margin prescription pharmaceuticals makes their pursuit untenable for the drug industry, which would have to spend many billions to bring them to establish their safety and efficacy—this is a brand new area of applied basic research, and a lot of groundwork would have to be done to make it real.  So at the moment, the money is simply not there yet to leverage all of the basic scientific research around anti-aging drugs.

Annuity Digest:  How likely is the federal government to fund anti-aging efforts when doing so likely has a direct impact on its balance sheet in terms of Social Security and arguably Medicare obligations?

David Stipp:  This is a huge issue.  I am currently reading a paper that discusses the notion that current forecasts for Social Security and Medicare spending by U.S. government are likely way too low.  Researchers who wrote this paper discuss the likelihood that by 2050 the U.S. government may be underestimating US life expectancy by three – eight years.  The obvious implication is entitlement spending projections that are trillions of dollars per year higher than current estimates.

I don’t really have insight into the thinking of people in government, but I suspect they have not really thought about it in the context of anti-aging drugs. 

I strongly believe that we are simply going to have to work longer.   A lot of boomers are of the opinion that it is a good thing to work part-time—one can’t just sit there and do nothing for decades.  Working longer could address a lot of the central budget problems posed by increasing longevity.

Further, anti-aging drugs would help this because we would be able to be healthier longer through these preventive medicines. 

It is important to note that I am not talking about extending lifespan without extending health span—the additional years spent in relatively good health.

Annuity Digest:  What impact might the recent health reform legislation have on anti-aging technologies and ventures?

David Stipp:  I am not hugely informed on the details of this issue.

In general, that legislation and the whole body politic around health appear to be focused on cost.  This seems to be about a very rational effort to save money down the road, possibly by boosting preventive medicine.

At the moment, I do not see a huge direct affect.

In the best of all possible worlds we would pursue anti-aging medicines because of healthy life spans and ability to work longer.

Annuity Digest:  You use the phrase “on the brink” in the title of your book.  At what stage are we at with the anti-aging industry?

David Stipp:  Technically we are absolutely on the brink of moving to translate the basic research into demonstrably effective drugs that modestly slow aging.

Politically we are not there at all.

Annuity Digest:  At what point or for which generation might anti-aging technologies apply in their full effect?

David Stipp:  I don’t expect it to have a full effect—even if we do everything right—for people like me.

The science is now so interesting and compelling that it might have some effect for certain boomers—particularly later-stage boomers.

I would see a high likelihood of meaningful impact on my children.

Annuity Digest:  Looking forward, which person, technology or venture is likely to have the greatest impact on the field of Gerontology?

David Stipp:  The simple answer is that only the U.S. government—the NIH in particular—has the resources to pursue this at this point in time. 

As I mentioned earlier, the economics do not make sense for the drug industry because aging is not treated as a disease.  As a result, it is irrelevant to think about treating aging process with FDA approved drugs.  The capital from private industry would be there for prescription pharmaceuticals but not for nutraceuticals. 

Annuity Digest:  Much of your book focuses on the science and related development around calorie restriction (“CR”) mimetics.  What about good old fashioned calorie restriction through diet rather than drugs?

David Stipp:  The reality is that it is simply too hard for most people.

I tried and was not capable of sticking with it—the hunger pains alone made it very hard to work.

Natural calorie restriction requires a 25 percent plus cut in a normal diet, so this probably results in a sub 2,000 calorie per day diet.  I would suspect this is much less than average.

In animal research the rule of thumb is around a 30 percent reduction in a normal diet which tends to bring on meaningful hunger.

Annuity Digest:  Thanks very much for your time David.

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