In some circles, it has become fashionable to predict that science is on the cusp of discovering how humans will be able to live to 1,000 years of age. In particular, Dr Aubrey de Grey believes that the first person to live to 1,000 has already been born. If true, that would probably open up another tedious round of debate about the level of the Australian Superannuation Guarantee needing to be higher than 12%.
The statistics of demography of the last 100 or so years in wealthy economies show falling rates of mortality across virtually all age groups. Lifespans have lengthened. Infant mortality has plunged. Even the accident hump that used to claim young men in particular in their early 20s has less effect. Key reasons behind the fall in rates of mortality include the better standards of public health that come from better water, food, sanitation and education. Cars and roads are better designed. Medical technology is always on the improve. And very significantly, antibiotics finally became widely available in the 1940s. The success of antibiotics was particularly significant. Previously, infections were deadly and they killed many people. Once antibiotics were in public medicine, infectious disease was almost removed as a cause of death. Today, cancers are the main cause of death. That is mainly because fewer people die earlier due to other causes.
As a result, virtually everyone approaching retirement age today, having lived their full lives without any direct experience of life without antibiotics, may consider their own potential demise from cancer, heart disease, diabetes or stroke but probably not from a urinary tract infection. Retirees generally expect years of healthy retirement. Not necessarily as many years as anticipated by Dr Grey, but a good number nonetheless.
But mortality is not yet beaten. Despite the advances of the last century, the rate of mortality has stayed stubbornly constant at 1 per person. What matters is when your number is up. Enter the superbug. A superbug is a bacterium that has resistance to antibiotics. Bacteria have been adapting and developing resistance to antibiotic drugs in the space of just 70 years. Deaths from superbug infections are on the rise and medical scientists are very concerned about it. If the superbugs take significant hold, the world will be plunged back to the days when many infections would lead to the death of an otherwise healthy individual.
There is a race on. It is the race between the rate of adaptation by bacteria against the resourcefulness and ingenuity of medical science. The result could have significant implications for humanity. And for retirement income planning.