Maria Esther de Capovilla, the world's oldest person, died in her native Ecuador yesterday. She was 116 years old. By all accounts, she had a good life and was in such good shape at the time of her unexpected death that her family was actively planning on celebrating her 117th birthday.
The news of de Capovilla's death wouldn't typically have me waxing philosophic about the possibility of my living to such a ripe old age. But in combination with two other recent news articles, it did.
The first story I came across was an Associated Press report revealing that the Cray XT3 supercomputer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee had been upgraded from 25 teraflops to 54 teraflops -- or 54 trillion calculations per second. The other was a story in today's New York Times discussing the nascent field of pharmacogenetics -- a clinical discipline in which genetic testing is used to manufacture custom-made drugs to meet patients' individual needs.
On the face of it, the three stories might not appear at all related, but I believe they are. Let me explain.
The article about the supercomputer suggested that Boeing (NYSE: BA ) might want to use it for designing new airplanes, DreamWorks Animation (NYSE: DWA ) for computer animation, and privately held General Atomics for futuristic research on fusion technology. The one industry it failed to mention, however, was the pharmaceutical industry.
It doesn't take much of a leap for me to understand how companies such as Merck (NYSE: MRK ) , Pfizer (NYSE: PFE ) , and GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK ) can apply the incredible raw power of these supercomputers toward enhancing their understanding of disease and developing potent new drugs. This is especially true if the supercomputers will increase their power 20-fold by 2009, as is expected.
One direct outcome could very well be not only the development of powerful new blockbuster treatments for heart disease and various types of cancer, but also the continued improvement in our understanding of the human genome. This, in turn, could lead to the rapid growth of personalized drug treatments and the overall field of pharmacogenetics.
In de Capovilla's case, her family attributed her longevity to something unique -- her consumption of donkey milk. In the future, I suspect that many of us will be living to 116 thanks, in part, to personalized (and more sophisticated) drugs that supercomputers and a better understanding of the human genome will have enabled.
And this takes me to my main point. It might sound laughable now, but I think people need to begin extending their investing horizons to include scenarios that seriously contemplate living well past 100.
The effect of even modest increases in life expectancy will hit most investors with the force of a Category 5 hurricane. For starters, Social Security and Medicare will experience even more extraordinary financial pressure as people live longer. As a result, I think that not only will taxes have to increase, but also benefits will have to be slashed and the retirement age increased. In fact, the problem will likely become so acute that our elected officials in Washington will be forced to do all three much sooner than any of them are willing to admit.
In turn, this will leave most people with little choice but to work longer, save more, and invest smarter. If you're looking for some new stocks that might lead this revolution in longer life expectancies -- and maybe even help your money last you longer -- see what our Motley Fool Rule Breakers newsletter service has to offer. A 30-day free trial awaits you.
Fool contributor Jack Uldrich will be 116 in the year 2081. He is the author of two books on nanotechnology and is currently working on his next book -- this one about how exponential advances in eight separate fields will radically alter the future business landscape. DreamWorks is a Stock Advisor recommendation. Pfizer is an Inside Value recommendation. Glaxo is a current pick and Merck a former pick of Income Investor. The Fool has a disclosure policy.