New Zealand is currently at ORANGE on the COVID-19 Protection Framework.

4 Jun 2016


So, here I am at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing after 38 hours of travelling door to door. The Institute has a very diverse group of researchers working in Latin America, Asia, Europe and Africa – so many different accents in the corridors.

nicky in england arrivalThe Institute was set up almost 20 years ago. It aims to link researchers and policy makers all around the world as they tackle population ageing in their different local situations. Last year they had visitors come to work at the Institute from places as diverse as Mexico, Uganda, Spain and China. Not sure if I am the first kiwi!

The Institute was set up by Professor Sarah Harper and she is still Director. She is heading down to New Zealand in a few weeks to present the Ryman Prize. This is a new $250,000 award for the world’s best development, advance or achievement that enhances quality of life for older people. It is awarded by a New Zealand charitable foundation but open to anyone in the world. Professor Harper is on the international judging panel.

Last year the (first-ever) prize was won by Gabi Hollows who, with her husband, set up the Fred Hollows Foundation to combat blindness in aboriginal Australians and in developing countries around the world. So far they have restored the sight of 1 million people, mainly older adults.

Tell me when you are going to die.

It’s an interesting question. Not when will you die, but when do you think you will?

How do you make an educated guess on something like lifespan? A lot of people apparently are conditioned by how long their parents lived. Not a bad starting point given the influence of genes but maybe a little pessimistic with the rate at which improvements in medical care are extending our lives.

A 2014 study by Club Vita (Reality Cheque, Hymans Robertson/Club Vita, July 2014in the UK (a company that assesses longevity for pension funds) surveyed 1000 people in the 50 to 65 age range and found men underestimated life expectancy on average by five years and women by eight. They didn’t have a good feel for what the “norm” was for lifespan, not surprising given it is rising so quickly, and also they didn’t understand the likelihood they may outlive the “norm”. Lifespan data is based on averages, so with good genes and a healthy lifestyle you might be adding many years to that number. Very few of the survey participants thought they might live past 90, yet 15% of them should.

There are a number of calculators online that you can try to get a better estimate. My favourite is - only because it said I was going to live to over 100. The simplest was NZ Statistics 'How Long will I Live' where you just have to enter age and sex and it told me somewhere between 88 and 90 years. The Vitality compass bluezones gave me an expected lifespan but also a biological age and a healthy life expectancy. Sadly there was a 12 year gap between how long I could expect to be healthy and how long I might expect to live – not very reassuring.

One of the problems if we are all routinely underestimating our lifespan is that we are unlikely to be socking away enough $ to see us through. If you think you’ll get to your 80s and it turns out you live to 98, that’s another decade or so of living costs. Your thoughts on how long you will live also will probably also affect your decisions around retirement. Would you retire if you had another 20 years to live, another 30?

In a survey being run online at the moment by the New Zealand Commission for Financial Capability, 77% (at the time of writing) said they were worried about living longer than their savings. And the Retirement Commissioner has said financial companies need to come up with better products to help people manage their savings over this hard to predict period of retirement.

So, some work to do helping people understand likely lifespans and then finding ways to give them some certainty that the $ won’t run out before they do.