Extended longevity has always been a fascinating topic for many people around the world. When the Netflix documentary ‘Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones’ was released in August 2023, it quickly became a top streaming pick. In the four-part series, viewers were introduced to the places in the world with the highest number of centenarians, i.e., people who live to 100 years of age or more. The docuseries host Dan Buettner has spent over 20 years investigating the reasons why people lead remarkably long, healthy lives in five longevity spots, also known as the blue zones. According to the National Geographic Fellow and New York Times bestselling author, the blue zones include Okinawa (Japan), Sardinia (Italy), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Icaria (Greece), Loma Linda (California), and Singapore. For instance, there are nearly 68 centenarians for every 100,000 residents in Okinawa, as compared to roughly 34 for every 100,000 residents in Sardinia.
Although most places in the world may not be home to as many centenarians or elderly adults as in the blue zones, the fact of the matter is that life expectancy worldwide has been steadily increasing over the past six decades. As Figure 1 shows, the average life expectancy among the 95 million Japanese inhabitants was already 68 years of age in 1961 versus an average of 53 years of age globally. Exactly 60 years later, in 2021, the average life expectancy in Japan, with a population of 125 million people, reached 84 years of age.
The UAE experienced an even more dramatic increase during the same period. In 1961, the Gulf country’s average life expectancy among its 141,000 inhabitants was barely 50 years of age. In 2021, it had a greater share of older adults at 79 years of age among a significantly larger population of 9.3 million. Although data from the World Bank revealed a shortened life expectancy across many countries in 2021 as compared to 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as of 2022 onwards, people’s life expectancy has increased again.
Figure 1: Life expectancy in select Gulf countries versus the major global economies
Although the world is certainly getting older, as is evidenced by overall growing life expectancy worldwide, the pace is not equally distributed among different countries and regions. This is particularly the case if we begin to put our focus on the median age, which divides a population into two parts of equal size. For instance, Figure 2 shows that the median age in developed countries like Japan, Germany, and Italy (i.e. those who are older than 47 years of age) is higher than in low-income economies like Nigeria and Angola, which have a median age of less than 20.
Although it may be argued that wealthier countries tend to have a higher median age than their poorer counterparts, Figure 2 shows that some affluent countries like Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and the UAE have managed to keep their median age (still) low (i.e. under 40 years of age) as compared to other high-income economies. For this reason, it is important to keep in mind that investment opportunities related to extended longevity mirror the unique demographic portrait of each country and region.
Figure 2: Median age in select countries (2022)
Since the number of chronic diseases is likely to grow in tandem with the inevitable forces of demographic ageing and shifting lifestyles, among an increasingly technology-savvy population in the 21st century, the call for consumers to lead a longer, healthier way of life will surely get louder. After all, if people are living longer, it would be helpful to have a health span that is free from undesirable conditions ranging from diabetes and obesity to cancer and hypertension. For instance, the World Health Organization estimates that obesity, which is defined as a body mass index (BMI) greater than or equal to 30 kg/m2, has nearly tripled since 1975, affecting over 650 million people worldwide.
Although obesity is often associated with high-income economies, Figure 3 shows that the health condition is, in fact, on the rise in low- and middle-income countries as well, particularly in urban settings. Although the average median age of the inhabitants in Japan, Italy, and Germany is higher than those in countries like Mexico and Nauru, the obesity prevalence rate in the former group remains lower.
Figure 3: Obesity rates in select countries
Hypertension is another health condition that affects many individuals around the world. According to the World Health Organization, around 1.3 billion people between the ages of 30 and 79 worldwide have hypertension, with nearly half of them oblivious to their health condition. If high blood pressure is left untreated, it can cause other health conditions, like cardiovascular and kidney diseases and stroke. The importance of maintaining one’s blood pressure within a healthy range was once again emphasised by the findings in a recent article published by a peer-reviewed medical journal.
According to the study, which included over 30,000 test participants across 15 countries around the world (such as Brazil, China, Germany, and the US), people with uncontrolled hypertension are 42per cent more likely to develop dementia. On the other hand, patients whose blood pressure is controlled through medication face the same level of risk as healthy individuals. In other words, the findings suggest that taking drugs to reduce hypertension could lower the risk of developing dementia as compared to those who leave their elevated blood pressure untreated.
The megatrend of population ageing is an inevitable reality that cannot be cast aside. A world in which there are many older adults, as well as individuals with longer lifespans, will affect consumer patterns and involuntary changes due to the growing prevalence of chronic diseases and the need for care. It is, therefore, never too early nor too late in one’s life to begin adopting healthy habits, e.g. regular physical exercise, better dietary choices like reducing the daily intake of salt and sugar, and participation in community activities or intergenerational gatherings to combat loneliness, as Dan Buettner has observed in the blue zones.
Not only do these habits help individuals achieve a longer life expectancy, but they may also enable some of them to reach 100 years of age or more, like those centenarians in the blue zones. This trend inevitably presents investment opportunities that span the areas of healthcare, elderly care, beauty, leisure, food and nutrition, and financial planning over the longer term.
Do you know the key business segments underpinning extended longevity?
While individuals can turn to a wide range of activities, such as intermediate fasting to enter a state of ketosis (a metabolic state where our body burns fat for energy instead of glucose), there are also other products and services that can help extend their health and lifespan. Given the growing interest in longevity and the long-term structural trend of changing demographics and lifestyles, Julius Baer has identified five business segments to keep an eye on:
Healthcare: Medical care services for various age-related chronic diseases and health conditions are likely to gain importance as the world’s population grows older. Diseases may include Alzheimer’s, cancer, and diabetes, as well as age-related conditions related to sight, hearing, and mobility. For instance, the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that this disease will cost the United States US$1 trillion by 2050, up from US$345 billion in 2023.
Elderly care: Population ageing presents favourable tailwinds for the long-term care sector amidst shifting social trends characterised by smaller household sizes and scattered families. As populations' age and dependency ratios increase, it is thus important that public health authorities ensure that available care can cater to older adults’ desire to remain independent by raising the focus on in-home care services and other community-based types of care.
Beauty: Consumers’ desire to continue to look their best through products such as anti-ageing creams, moisturisers, and serums strengthens this industry. Asia-Pacific, North America, and Western Europe account for nearly 80 per cent of the global beauty market, which is estimated to be worth US$420 billion.
Leisure: Greater discretionary income among older adults means more opportunities for leisure-time activities, such as cruises and wellness. More than half of cruise passengers, for instance, are above the age of 50.
Nutrition: Supplements may address the deficiencies in vitamins and minerals faced by older adults due to their growing inability to digest food nutrients.
Financial planning: Saving or investing for retirement requires early preparation to achieve an acceptable standard of living, fill pension gaps, and overcome the limitations of stretched welfare systems.
Dr. Damien Ng is a Thematic Research Analyst in Julius Baer’s Next Generation Research. Damien focuses on demographics, healthcare and consumption issues under the ‘Shifting Lifestyle’ theme, as well as global education under the ‘Inequality’ theme.
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