Maverick Life

A LIFE LIVED WELL

Why so many older people are thriving

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As life expectancy increases, the proportion of the population above the age of 60 is on the rise, and that has a lot of implications for society.

In June 2019, the UN released the World Population Prospects 2019 report. Some of their findings were that “life expectancy at birth for the world, which increased from 64.2 years in 1990 to 72.6 years in 2019, is expected to increase further to 77.1 years in 2050,” and, “by 2050, one in six people in the world will be over age 65 (16%), up from one in 11 in 2019 (9%)…..The number of persons aged 80 years or over is projected to triple, from 143 million in 2019 to 426 million in 2050.”

How much of an impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on those statistics remains to be seen. However, even if all the confirmed deaths were above the age of 60 – equating to nearly a million deaths, statistically that is unlikely to change the trajectory of the trend towards a larger older population.

The UN credits the growth of an older population to “the advancement of public health, medicine, and economic and social development, and their contribution to the control of disease, prevention of injury, and reduction in the risk of premature death,” as well as a declining birth rate.

Outside of conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s, it is also no longer taken for granted that significant memory decline is part of the ageing process. A number of studies show a close link between lifestyle choices and cognitive decline among seniors. In 2016, the University of Texas’ School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, published an analysis of major ageing research of the past 50 years.

One of their key findings was that, “as research developed, a multitude of variables were recognized to contribute to age-related memory deficits. The shift from early single-mechanism views to involved multifactorial models is striking, and these intricate cognitive models mirror the vast complexity of the aging brain.”

Simply put, the level of memory decline in old age is not a given, but rather something that is affected by a multitude of factors, many of which are being continually discovered. An article published by Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publishing website in 2010, broke it down to practical steps that can help guard against memory decline, stating that “experts think that advanced education may help keep memory strong by getting a person into the habit of being mentally active…Many people have jobs that keep them mentally active, but pursuing a hobby or learning a new skill can function the same way. Read; join a book group; play chess or bridge; write your life story; do crossword or jigsaw puzzles; take a class; pursue music or art; design a new garden layout.”

In addition, they highlight the importance of diet and exercise, as well as guarding against diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, depression, cholesterol, and an underactive thyroid.

On the positive end, the increase in longevity as well as the implementation of healthy habits, is likely to result in a healthier population above the age of 60. While many might be looking forward to retirement at 60, the possibility of another 20, 30, or 40 years of life and minimal cognitive decline, might put into question the idea of retiring at 60. If indeed, as the body of research suggests, ageing is in fact informed by various conditions, and not all 65 year old or even 80 years olds are in the same state of health or cognitive decline, how fair then is the mandatory retirement age of 60 or 65 that is implemented by many companies?

And what of the very real economic conditions? As reported by Ruan Jooste for Daily Maverick in September 2019, “A key issue that crops up often in retirement research is mounting financial pressure, which is preventing people from saving enough or at all for their golden years. Findings aligned very closely with a widely quoted National Treasury statement that only 6% of the country’s population was on track to retire comfortably.”

Work also provides a necessary sense of purpose for many. A 2017 study, by professors from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, titled Association Between Purpose in Life and Objective Measures of Physical Function in Older Adults, concluded that, “Purpose in life was prospectively associated with a decreased risk of developing weak grip strength and slow walking speed, although the findings were more robust for walking speed than for grip strength. These findings suggest that a sense of purpose in life, a modifiable factor, may play an important role in maintaining physical function among older adults.”

Judging by the UN’s report, the world’s population will continue to get significantly older. Are the current systems in place – be they company policies with regards to retirement age, or youth-obsessed marketing strategies, or public services geared towards seniors – ready for the healthy, and mentally fit elder in the room? If not, are they getting ready? DM/ ML

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