Half of all the people who have ever survived to the age of 65 are living today. Life expectancy is constantly improving but at what cost? Are those added years more likely to be a time of disease and disability?
The mainstream media loves to report on how our extended lives are an amazing achievement for humankind. And yet there's a paradox: the aging population is widely seen as an impending disaster with many health problems.. There isn't going to be enough money for all these idle old people, we're constantly told; pensions are inadequate and our social care needs will ruin us. And if we're terrified for society at large, we're also terrified for ourselves.
We don't want to think about getting older, but we're obsessed with it. This month alone, there have been several headlines: the possibility of a new drug to slow down the aging process, based on work at Harvard with an enzyme, telomerase, that repairs damaged tissues in mice; and the announcement of a new social grouping, the "club sandwich" generation, people aged 55 to 64 who are helping to look after not only elderly parents and children, but also grandchildren, as four-generation families become the norm.
An analysis of government data has found that while life expectancy has steadily increased over the past decade, the prevalence of heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes has also increased, and disability has grown as well.
For example, in 1998 about 16 percent of men in their 70s had a mobility problem — that is, they failed one of four commonly used physical tests. By 2006, almost 25 percent failed at least one.
It is not clear at what point you become part of the "aging population". Some statisticians consider anyone over 50 an older person; if that is the case, then many of us are going to be old for half our lives. Lumping everyone together and talking in alarmist terms about the "aging population" seems rather neurotic, especially as we know that people actually become more diverse as they age. In truth, it's not populations that age, it's people, and they do it at different rates and in very different ways. You wouldn't think so, though, from the way that older consumers are ignored by marketing and advertising. Compared with the effort that goes into segmenting young consumers, identifying ever more nuanced tribes, the over–50s are dismissed as a homogeneous and not very interesting lump. Occasionally, there is some attempt to distinguish the young-old from the old-old, but neither group is seen as worth much effort. Is insurance really the only thing older people aspire to spend their money on?
Writing in the January issue of The Journal of Gerontology B, the authors conclude that people live longer not because they are less likely to get sick, but because they survive longer with disease.
As a result, a 20-year-old man today can expect to live about a year longer than a 20-year-old in 1998, but will spend 1.2 years more with a disease, and 2 more years unable to function normally.
The lead author, Eileen M. Crimmins, a professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California, said that while we have been very successful in increasing the length of life, it comes at a cost.
“Longer life is what we want,” she said. “But we’re going to have to pay for it with more treatment of diseases and accommodations for disability.”
Life, it has been said, can only be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards. The presence of large numbers of older people offers an opportunity for a better perspective on our lives. Why work our longest hours at a time when our children are young? Couldn't we take a longer view of the life course, one that would allow us to take gap years at any point, so as to take on caring responsibilities or voluntary work or go into further education?
It is not really a paradox, of course, that we are obsessed with aging at the same time as being scared of it. We associate getting older with decline, so no wonder we want to believe that 60 is the new 40. It would be more helpful to think of it as the new 60. At least as interesting as the scientific research into various founts of youth are the neurological advances now demonstrating that there really is something in the idea that you gain wisdom as you age.
We need to take the wisdom we've acquired from empirical evidence we've experienced throughout our lives and apply it to our health. We need to stop listening to doctors tell us about how our bodies work and start listening to ourselves.