Life beyond 120: Doctors weigh in on leading healthier, longer lives


Read time

Part of the Future-Ready Series hosted by leading global insurance broker Howden Private Wealth and The Peak, this first of four round-table discussions casts a spotlight on healthcare in our golden years.

“We’re going to be obsolete. We’re going to have to find another occupation,” breast surgeon Dr Felicia Tan told her husband, a liver surgeon, after returning from a conference at which medical oncologists presented data on the latest cancer treatments some years ago.

“They were showing scan results and pathology results of breast cancer patients achieving close to 100 per cent remission just from taking drugs alone. This means that the role of surgery as the cornerstone of cancer treatment will soon be obsolete,” the director of group surgical practice FeM Surgery recounted during Life Beyond 120, Howden Private Wealth future-ready round-table series on healthcare.

Karen Soh, Rosemary Tan, Lauren Tan, Felicia Tan, Adrian Ong, Kelvin Choo, IPG Howden, Andrew Tan, Daniel Tan
First row: Dr Karen Soh, Dr Rosemary Tan, Lauren Tan, Dr Felicia Tan; Second row: Dr Adrian Ong, Kelvin Choo, Senior VP & Head Strategic Projects at Howden Private Wealth, Dr Andrew Tan, and Dr Daniel Tan. (Photo: Vernon Wong)


Not only has medical science and technology advanced rapidly, researchers are also trying to figure out how long we can live — if by a combination of genetics, medical intervention, or luck, we don’t succumb to illness or injury. 

According to the United Nations, there will be over 25 million centenarians worldwide by 2100. The oldest verified supercentenarian was French woman Jeanne Calment, who died at the age of 122 years and 164 days in 1997. Research published last year in Nature Communications suggests the maximum lifespan is between 120 and 150 years, after which the body experiences “a complete loss of resilience”.

“If we don’t destroy the environment, which in turn affects our health, and if we work together on improving living conditions in general, there is a real possibility of the average life expectancy trending towards 120,” added Dr Daniel Tan, medical director of Asian Alliance Radiation & Oncology (AARO). “Especially if key breakthroughs are achieved in the top killers like heart disease and cancer, as well as advances in gene therapy, which may slow down the ageing process in humans.” 

New developments in the treatment of dementia, a life-limiting condition that affects one in 10 persons aged 60 and above, also has Dr Andrew Tan, hopeful. The nuclear medicine consultant at Farrer Park Hospital with a subspecialty in neurodegenerative disorders shared, “For the longest time, the only drugs available were used to treat the symptoms related to dementia, but recently a new antibody drug that actually targetted the suspected cause of dementia (Alzheimer’s) was released.” 

In Singapore, 152,000 people are projected to live with dementia by 2030, according to Ministry of Health data.

Encouragingly, a variety of pharmaceutical agents are undergoing trials intended to stop and perhaps reverse dementia. “The good news for dementia patients and their caregivers is that immense resources and funding are being poured into research by pharmaceutical companies and research labs, and a potential breakthrough is probably coming,” Dr Tan added.

Related: The future of money: Which alternative assets are worth investing in?

Doctor technology
(Photo: 123RF)

Living Better

Even if not everyone aspires to live to the supercentenarian age, man’s desire for immortality is as old as humanity itself. China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang (reigned 221—210 BCE), sought a potion to give him eternal life, but died of mercury poisoning instead. 

Society’s preoccupation with issues of ageing persists, not least in the visible signs of growing older. 

“I think we’ve come to expect a certain quality of life, and part of living well is looking good,” shared Dr Karen Soh, medical director of aesthetics practice Privé Clinic and a member of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine.

“Nobody wants to look in the mirror and see a reflection that is older than they feel. So they might come in for treatment to look fresher. They’re doing it for themselves; it’s not an obsession with youth. The goal for most of our patients has shifted from wanting to look younger to wanting to look good for their age.”

The desire to take charge of one’s vitality, in tandem with growing public awareness of genetic disorders, fuelled the global demand for direct-to-consumer genetic testing kits to the tune of more than $1.9 billion in 2021. 

Do you want to know if you are at risk of breast cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, or do you want some insight into your microbiome, which influences your health and can be passed from parent to child? Test kits are available to the public should they wish to test, discover and act on the results, but doctors warn that the results are not conclusive and are of limited value.

“Retail genetic tests usually flag increased risks for certain diseases but cannot replace clinical tests and assessments,” affirmed Dr Rosemary Tan, CEO of Veredus Laboratories and a 2017 The Peak Power List honouree.

Being alive is just breathing. Living is experiencing all sorts of joys and sadness that life brings, being productive, and contributing to the happiness of others. One needs to have a baseline amount of wealth to be able to live. - Dr Felicia Tan

“People who are more health-conscious are usually the early adopters looking out for potential health issues that may crop up. Whether they act on the information and make changes to lead longer and better lives will require long-term studies,” she added. 

Founded in 2003, Veredus Laboratories develops molecular tests for the detection of pathogens in disease and bio-surveillance on biological threats. The firm also developed PCR test kits used widely at Singapore’s international checkpoints during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The former executive officer to the Director-General of the WHO and infectious diseases physician Dr Adrian Ong also observed that recent pandemics — such as Covid-19, Mers, Avian Flu, Zika, and Sars — have highlighted both our vulnerability and the paramount importance of public health. “The spectre of new microbial epidemics will always haunt us — it is the long dance between humans and nature. Yet it is with some of the same medical tools that saved the day during Covid-19 that human life expectancy will be extended,” he said.

Related: Educators on empowering today’s students with the skills to flourish in tomorrow’s world

The Peak Round Table IPG Howden
From left: Dr Andrew Tan, Dr Adrian Ong, Dr Karen Soh, Kelvin Choo, Senior VP & Head Strategic Projects at Howden Private Wealth, Dr Rosemary Tan, Lauren Tan, Dr Felicia Tan and Dr Daniel Tan. (Photo: Vernon Wong)

Beyond 120

A significant increase in life expectancy would, however, fundamentally change social constructs and the ways countries and individuals optimise resources to meet the needs of current and future generations.

“Living beyond 120 will demand a rethink of many aspects of society, including family structures, parity and social capital. We may in the future find ourselves living in a four- or even five-generation household — a simply mind-boggling concept. We will need a new narrative on the social, economic, and value implications of such a generational household,” Dr Ong shared. 

Dr Daniel Tan, who founded AARO following his family’s battle with cancer, emphasised the need for advanced yet holistic medical care to maintain a longer life expectancy. “Life Beyond 120 relates to this in that currently one in three people will develop cancer in their lifetime, so it’s just as important to minimise the side effects of treatment and help rejuvenate a patient’s mind and body post-cancer treatment, so they can lead healthy and productive lives.”

Dr Felicia Tan, whose FeM Surgery dedicates 20 per cent of company time and resources to overseas medical missions, brought the discussion back to a more personal level. “Quality of life (QOL) is key. My health, wealth and social QOL needs to be maintained through my centennial years if I am going to live beyond 120,” she shared. “Being alive is just breathing, heart pumping. Living is experiencing all sorts of joys and sadness that life brings, being productive, and contributing to the happiness of others. One needs to have a baseline amount of wealth to be able to live.”

The sentiment was shared by Dr Rosemary Tan: “Most important to me is not how long I live but how I live those years. If I am able to eat, enjoy life, sleep well, contribute to society, mentor the next generation, and watch them blossom, I will continue to do it even at 120. Fundamentally, it is about the fulfilment I get from my work and loved ones, as well as the quality of life I possess.” 

Preserving Wealth, Protecting Legacies

While having longer life expectancy may seem desirable, one may need to consider the downside and risks associated with longevity, such as outliving one’s savings and managing rising healthcare-related costs during the golden years. 

Howden Private Wealth can address these concerns by providing individuals and families with liquidity using globally-sourced insurance solutions to help them achieve their legacy planning goals and peace of mind. 

Article by Lauren Tan, Editor-in-Chief, The Peak Magazine