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People today can generally expect to live longer and, in some parts of the world, healthier lives. The substantial increases in life expectancy underlying these global demographic shifts represent a human triumph over disease, hunger, and deprivation, but also pose difficult challenges across multiple sectors. Population aging will have dramatic effects on labor supply, patterns of work and retirement, family and social structures, healthcare services, savings, and, of course, pension systems and other social support programs used by older adults. Individuals, communities, and nations around the world must adapt quickly to the demographic reality facing us and design new approaches to financing the many needs that come with longer lives.

This imperative is the focus of a newly published special issue of The Journal of the Economics of Ageing, entitled Financing Longevity: The Economics of Pensions, Health and Long-term Care. The special issue collects articles originally written for and discussed at a conference that was dedicated to the same topic and held at Stanford in April 2017 to mark the tenth anniversary of APARC’s Asia Health Policy Program (AHPP). The conference convened top experts in health economics and policy to examine empirical and theoretical research on a range of problems pertinent to the economics of aging from the perspective of sustainable financing for long lives. The economics of the demographic transition is one of the research areas that Karen Eggleston, APARC’s deputy director and AHPP director, studies. She co-edited the special issue with Anita Mukherjee, a Stanford graduate now assistant professor in the Department of Risk and Insurance at the Wisconsin School of Business, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Financing Longevity conference was organized by The Next World Program, a Consortium composed of partners from Harvard University, Fudan University, Stanford University, and the World Demographic and Aging Forum, and was cosponsored by AHPP, the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, and the Stanford Center on the Demography and Economics of Aging.

The contributions that originated from the conference and are collected in the Journal’s special issue cover comparative research on more than 30 European countries and 17 Latin American countries, as well as studies on Australia, the United States, India, China, and Japan. They analyze a variety of questions pertinent to financing longevity, including how pension structures may exacerbate existing social inequalities; how formal and informal insurance interact in securing long-term care needs; the ways in which the elderly cope with caregiving and cognitive decline; and what new approaches might help extend old-age financial security to those working outside the formal sector, which is a major concern in low-income countries.

Another challenge of utmost importance is the global pension crisis, caused due to committed payments that far exceed the saved resources. It is a problem that Eggleston and Mukherjee highlight in their introduction to the special issue. By 2050, they note, the pension gap facing the world’s eight largest pension systems is expected to reach nearly US $400 trillion. The problem cannot be ignored, as “the financial security of people leading longer lives is in serious jeopardy.” Indeed four of the eight research papers in the special issue shed light on pensions and inequality in income support for older adults. The other four research papers focus on health and its interaction with labor force participation, savings, and long-term care.

The issue also features two special contributions. The first is an interview with Olivia S. Mitchell, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and worldwide expert on pensions and ageing. Mitchell explains the areas offering the most promise and excitement in her field; discusses ways to encourage delayed retirement and spur more saving; and suggests several priority areas for future research. The latter include applying behavioral insights to questions about retirement planning, improving financial literacy, and advancing innovations to help people imagine themselves at older ages and save more for their future selves.

The second unique contribution is a perspective on the challenges of financing longevity in Japan, based on the keynote address delivered at the 2017 Stanford conference by Mr. Hirotaka Unami, then senior Director for policy planning and research of the Minister’s secretariat of the Japan Ministry of Finance and currently deputy director general with the Ministry’s Budget Bureau.

In Japan, decades of improving life expectancy and falling birth rates have produced a rapidly aging and now shrinking population. Data released by Japan’s Statistics Bureau ahead of Children's Day on May 5, 2019 reveal that Japan’s child population (those younger than 15) ranks lowest among countries with a total population exceeding 40 million. In his piece, Unami focuses on the difficult tradeoffs Japan faces in responding to the increase in oldest-old population (people aged 75 and over) and the overall population decline. Japan aspires to do so through policies that are designed to restore financial sustainability for the country’s social security system, including the medical care and long-term care insurance systems.

Unami argues that Japan must simultaneously pursue a combination of increased tax revenues, reduced benefit growth, and accelerated economic growth. He notes that these three-pronged efforts require action in five areas: review Japan’s pension policies; reduce the scope of insurance coverage in low-risk areas; increase the effectiveness of health service providers; increase a beneficiary’s burden according to their means; and enhance policies for preventive health care for the elderly.

The aging of our world’s population is a defining issue of our time and there is pressing need for research to inform policies intended to improve the financial well-being of present and future generations. The articles collected in the Financing Longevity special issue and the ongoing work by APARC’s Asia Health Policy Program point to multiple areas ripe for such future research.

View the complete special issue >>

Learn more about Dr. Karen Eggleston’s work in the area of innovation for healthy aging >>


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May Wong
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Something as simple as, "Are you taking your medications?" could conceivably prolong a life.

And now, a Stanford study provides novel, concrete evidence on the power of exposure to health-related expertise – not only in improving mortality rates and lifelong health outcomes, but also in narrowing the vexing health gap between the rich and poor.

The study, detailed in a new working paper released this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, was co-authored by Petra Persson, an assistant professor of economics; Maria Polyakova, an assistant professor of health economics at Stanford School of Medicine and core faculty at Stanford Health Policy; and Yiqun Chen, a doctoral student in health economics at Stanford School of Medicine. Persson and Polyakova are both faculty fellows at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR).

Their study tackles the issue of health inequality and specifically examines the effects of having access to informal health expertise by having a doctor or nurse in the family. It finds that those with relatives in the health profession are 10 percent more likely to live beyond age 80. They are also significantly less likely to have chronic lifestyle-related conditions, such as heart attacks, heart failure and diabetes.

Younger relatives within the extended family also see gains: They are more likely to have been vaccinated, and they have fewer hospital admissions and a lower prevalence of drug or alcohol addiction.

In addition, the closer the relatives are to their familial medical source – either geographically or within the family tree – the more pronounced the impact of the health benefits, according to the findings.

The researchers used data from Sweden, where lotteries were used in the early 2000s to break ties among equally qualified applicants for admission into medical schools. The researchers then compared the health of the family members of lottery winners against lottery losers – a setup similar to a randomized control trial.

The strong findings of health benefits funneled from a familial sphere of medical knowledge suggest it would be worth ramping up access to health expertise in our health care system, the researchers say.

A doctor, for instance, could prescribe statins – a type of drug known to lower the risk of heart attacks – but whether the patient continues taking it from day to day is a decision made at home.

“Our work shows that there is a lot of value in trying to improve people’s decisions about their investment in their own health,” Persson says.

“If the government and health care system, including public and private insurers, could mimic what goes on inside families, then we could reduce health inequality by as much as 18 percent,” she says, referring to a main finding of the study.

Intra-family transmissions of health-related expertise might encompass frequent nagging to adhere to prescribed medications, get vaccinations or refrain from smoking during pregnancy, and “these behavioral changes are – from a society’s perspective – simple and cheap,” the study states.

Disparity despite access

The study also reveals limitations to the impact of equal access to medical care, underscoring the importance of other health efforts.

The researchers compared mortality data of Sweden – where there is universal access to health care – to the United States. They found the overall mortality was lower in Sweden but the level of health inequality largely mirrored that of the United States. In Sweden, despite its extensive social safety net, the rich also live longer and the poor die younger. Specifically, among people alive at age 55, more than 40 percent of individuals at the bottom of the income distribution in Sweden will have died by age 80 – as opposed to fewer than 25 percent for those at the top of the distribution.

“This health inequality appears to be extremely stubborn,” Persson says. “We can throw a universal health insurance system at it and yet substantial inequality persists. So, is there anything else that can help us close that health gap between rich and poor?”

According to their latest research, yes.

Health effects from having a medical professional in the family were substantial and occurred across the income spectrum, according to the study. And because the effects from the exposure to medical expertise was often even stronger for those at the lower half of the income distribution, the researchers estimated that information-driven behaviors could make a significant difference in getting rid of health disparities.

Closer ties, less churn

The study did not examine the complexity of family dynamics or specific actions that led to the positive health effects, but the researchers hypothesize that the mere presence of a medical professional in the family translates somehow to either a heightened health culture or, at least, having a coach of sorts to encourage healthy, good-patient behavior.

Although general public health campaigns (e.g., “Get Your Flu Shot Today!”) may not carry the same level of influence as intimate dinner-table discussions or persistent prodding among family members, there could be other ways society can improve its exposure to medical expertise to lead to healthier, longer lives, the researchers say.

Community health worker or nurse outreach programs can perhaps lead to more targeted, personalized communication efforts, they say. Digital nudges delivered through mobile phone apps could potentially make healthy dents.

Reminders of preventive care can also come by way of closer patient-doctor relationships and more consistent, longer-term ties to the same doctor.

“The idea of continuity of care and developing a true relationship with your doctor, who becomes someone who pays attention to you as an individual and sees you and your family over a long period of time, is well known,” Polyakova says. “Today, it’s what they might call old-fashioned primary care, where the whole family goes to the same doctor for many years. Many countries, the U.S. included, appear to be moving increasingly away from this model, and our results suggest that we might want to do the reverse.”

The finding of how a closer family connection or closer proximity leads to even stronger health outcomes helps substantiate the potential difference a closer bond between any doctor and patient could make – improvements that would be hard to glean from rushed and infrequent medical appointments, Persson and Polyakova say.

Communication-focused health initiatives don’t have to come with hefty price tags either, they say.

“We pour a lot of resources into getting even fancier machines inside hospitals, but the things that are making a difference here are not that expensive,” Persson says of their findings. “These are cheap, easily scalable preventative investments that are translating to gains in longevity, which is remarkable.”

Sweden’s medical school lotteries

Using large-scale data from Sweden, the researchers focused on quantifying the role of informal exposure to health expertise via a medical professional in the family while avoiding results that would be muddled with other differences between individuals with and without a doctor in the family.

The researchers used two different approaches. First, they took advantage of the fact that in some years, lotteries were used to break ties among equally qualified applicants to Sweden’s medical schools. This allowed the researchers to use medical school application records and track the health of family members of applicants who won and lost the lottery.

The researchers looked at more than 30 years of continuous health and tax records spanning four generations of family members, and examined health-related outcomes of the extended family members of newly trained doctors and nurses – including their siblings, parents, grandparents, children, aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws.

Second, researchers sought to double-check whether higher income and higher social status associated with the medical profession had anything to do with the positive health benefits they found.

One of the ways they did this was to draw a comparison to lawyers, a similarly paid profession. The parents of doctors, they found, were 16 percent more likely to be alive than the parents of lawyers 20 years after their children matriculated. The parents of doctors also faced lower prospects of lifestyle-related chronic diseases.

In addition to the higher likelihood of their parents living past age 80 and the lower likelihood of heart diseases, the relatives of health professionals showed higher levels of preventive behaviors, including purchases of heart and blood-thinning medications, and vaccinations for HPV, or human papillomavirus. Younger family members also had fewer hospital admissions and addiction cases.

“People with health professionals in the family essentially make preventative investments that everyone should be doing,” Persson says.

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John W. (Jack) Rowe MD, an expert on health care economics and healthy aging, will be the inaugural speaker for the Stanford Center on Longevity Distinguished Lecture Series. Rowe is professor of health policy and management, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and former CEO of Aetna Inc.

Rowe’s lecture, “Myths and Realities of an Aging Society,” will be from 6 to 7 p.m. (reception at 5:30 p.m.), Tuesday, April 13.

Frances C. Arrillaga Alumni Center

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Dept. of Health Policy & Mgmt.
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Professor, Department of Health Policy and Management, Joseph Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University

Dr. John Rowe is the Julius B. Richmond Professor of Health Policy and Aging at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.  Previously, from 2000 until his retirement in late 2006, Dr. Rowe served as Chairman and CEO of Aetna, Inc., one of the nation's leading health care and related benefits organizations.  Before his tenure at Aetna, from 1998 to 2000, Dr. Rowe served as President and Chief Executive Officer of Mount Sinai NYU Health, one of the nation’s largest academic health care organizations. From 1988 to 1998, prior to the Mount Sinai-NYU Health merger, Dr. Rowe was President of the Mount Sinai Hospital and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

Before joining Mount Sinai, Dr. Rowe was a Professor of Medicine and the founding Director of the Division on Aging at the Harvard Medical School, as well as Chief of Gerontology at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital.  He was Director of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Aging and is co-author, with Robert Kahn, Ph.D., of Successful Aging (Pantheon, 1998). Currently, Dr. Rowe leads the MacArthur Foundation’s Network on An Aging Society .

Dr. Rowe was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. He  serves on the Board of Trustees of the Rockefeller Foundation and is Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts and the Board of Overseers of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. He is Chair of the Advisory Council of Stanford University’s Center on Longevity, and  was a founding Commissioner of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission ( Medpac) and Chair of the board of Trustees of the University of Connecticut. 

Adjunct Affiliate at the Center for Health Policy and the Department of Health Policy
John (Jack) Rowe Speaker

Despite the fact that physical health and cognitive abilities decline with age, emotion regulation remains stable or improves across the adult lifespan. The consequence of these changes for decision-making is complex and likely varies with choice domain. Here, we investigate this interaction in the domain of intertemporal choice: a broad range of everyday decisions (e.g. healthy eating, retirement savings, exercise) that require trade-offs between immediate satisfaction and long-term wellbeing.

A research report, “A survey of rural-urban migrants in Shenzhen, China”, based on findings from this project, was submitted to the Shenzhen government in December of 2005.  Since then, the Santa Fe Institute International Program, the Ministry of Education of China and the Treasury Department of China funded further research.  Dr.

The researchers developed models for the time course of the economic demography of remote Chinese villages that takes into account the migration, and sometimes return, of the villagers, the predicted remittances, the costs for maintenance of those remaining in the villages (mainly parents and children of the migrants), and the marriage squeeze on males, which is very pronounced in remote rural China. They constructed formal mathematical models that include the above-mentioned features, as well as the rate of migration (which is available from our data).

 This seed grant aimed to verify the ages of elderly individuals in a sample of Khomani San “Bushmen” from South Africa. With verified data, the researchers then aim to identify genetic loci associated with longevity in their sample. In November 2011, the researchers returned to South Africa and conducted follow-up interviews with 60 subjects; additionally they were able to enroll 41 new subjects in the study for a total of 101 subjects. They confirmed that half of their sample exceeded 50 years of age (up to age 98).

The researchers conducted a series of studies using nationally-representative data from the recent WHO Study on Global Aging and Adult Health (SAGE) to identify the relationship between NCD-related disability among adults over 50 years of age in India and healthcare utilization and costs. The study to date has found that older rural women were disproportionately affected by non-diagnosed NCDs, with high out of pocket healthcare expenditures increasing the probability of remaining symptomatic from NCDs.

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Program Manager

Neesha Joseph is Program Manager for the Stanford Center on the Demography and Economics of Health and Aging (CDEHA) and the Stanford Center on Advancing Decision Making in Aging (CADMA). In this capacity she oversees center operations, including coordinating pilot projects and center conferences and activities. She also conducts policy research on health care topics, such as the impact of age on innovation in health research, the cost and disease management implications of patient comorbidity in Medicare populations, and the impact of of health care reform on physician human capital.

She brings with her experience in health research and management. Previously Neesha worked as a Research Analyst specializing in health economics at the Milken Institute, where she was involved with various aging initiatives. She received a master's degree in public policy from the USC Price School of Public Policy, and her areas of interest include health economics and international development.

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