What if the human life span keeps increasing?

by Rebecca Briant, Student and Receptionist, London, UK

The average life expectancy of humans is increasing at an unprecedented rate. Seen as one of the great achievements of the century, in the last 40 years alone it has risen by 10 years, and in 2011 life expectancy at birth was almost double what it was in 1841(1). But what will happen if our life span continues to increase, and how can we address the issues we will face?

As most people know, with age there comes a natural deterioration of the body. However, what we are already witnessing, and will see more of should trends continue to increase, is an unmanageable presence of chronic, multi-symptomatic conditions in our elderly and increasingly in younger people, which create a huge economic strain on the NHS. The annual cost of health and social care is far higher for elderly people, with more than two-fifths of the national health budget in the UK devoted to people over 65(2) and the number of older people in need of care is projected to rise by more than 60% in the next 20 years(3).

This strain will not be limited to the NHS alone, but will reach into wider society. In the UK the ratio of people of working age to people over 65 could fall from 3.7:1 in 1999 to 2.1:1 in 2040. This has the potential to drive up taxes for those in work, to be able to fund the increasing health and social care spending on the older population(4). There are also the implications on the wider health and social care systems to find long term care for the patients once they are discharged.

Dementia takes a toll

Taking just one illness as an example, dementia is one of the leading causes of disability in later life, with approximately 850,000 people estimated to have dementia in UK by 2015.(5) This is enough people to fill the Wembley stadium ten times over and this number is set to rise to 2,092,945 by 2051- this is more than the entire populations of Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham put together.

A UK study has estimated that the health and social care costs for dementia almost match the combined costs of cancer, heart disease and stroke(6) but the impact of dementia is more than simply financial. Dementia along with so many of the other illnesses and diseases carries a human toll, not only at the point of death of the ones suffering, but in their reduced quality of life and the distress caused to family and friends, and even to the carers and medical staff.

If these statistics show us the state of society as it is today, then if the trends continue as they are forecast to do, we are looking at a future where this one disease alone could bring the NHS to its knees.

What can we do?

So what can be done to make real and lasting change, preventing the mass deterioration of our elderly rather than simply trying to manage it?

Our focus on a healthy and successful life being one with an ever-increasing life span needs a shift instead to the quality of life lived – not just physical health but the wellbeing of the population. Much of the current burden on the NHS’s time and funds comes from illness and disease that result from life style choices and these health problems only become worse and more complicated in older years.

Research is showing us that around 90-95% of cancers have their root cause in environment and lifestyle, such as diet, stress, smoking etc.(7) Obesity is another major health concern, which is largely preventable, and is a massive risk factor for many other health issues.

This type of research is the starting point for change, where we begin to see that the lifestyle choices of our youth become the quality of life we experience in our elder years.

How we live when we are young shapes how we will be when we are old.

What if by focusing and in some cases vilifying the older generation for their state of ill health, we are missing the key to how to begin to turn the tides on these trends? We cannot solely focus on the older population to solve the issues it faces, we have to involve people of all ages, so that instead of striving for longer life, we foster greater awareness and responsibility for our individual health with the knowing that we will all one day grow old. This will make way for a future where prevention of many illnesses and diseases is in our hands, not because of new technology, medical intervention or the length of our lives, but because of the way we choose to live them. It is an inevitable fact of life that we will all grow older and yet we like to live as if we will be young forever – in the end we see that our choices of lifestyle catch up with us, and at that point the ripple effects are significant.

We can also look at the way we as a society now treat and care for our elderly. No longer do they remain within the family home, they are increasingly living in care homes or on their own. This is not only an added strain on the health care system to find the carers to attend to their needs, but also separates the elderly from society, often causing loneliness and social isolation which in itself, because of the social nature of humans and our need to connect and interact, can be a precursor to disease.

Some homes have already begun to experiment with ways to bring society and the elderly back together, with one home in Finland giving cheaper rent to young people in the city, in return for a few hours a week spent with the residents(8). There are also communal living projects, where groups of older people can group together in purpose built accommodation, developing a community and maintaining independence. Another home in Seattle is combined with a Nursery, bringing the youngest and oldest generations together. (9) Our older generation has a wealth of knowledge and experience to share and we in turn have a duty of care to them, to provide dignity, love, connection, care and respect up until their last breath.

If we begin to tackle these issues from all sides then we can stop these statistics from escalating further. By making changes in the way the whole population approaches lifestyle choices, we can improve overall health with the understanding that it will produce generations who age, with the potential to have less propensity for such large volumes of complex illness and disease.

Just as we all want our children to grow up to have successful careers and relationships, would we not equally want them to grow up and have a respectful, active and joyful old age?

Our entire social perspective of ageing needs a seismic shift away from the current state of denial we have at the idea of ageing, seen in the constant anti-ageing commercials and setting to one side of older people in society, with a very direct focus on youth with little consideration or responsibility taken for the inevitable latter years of our lives. All these things contribute to the issues we face, and it is in starting these conversations that together as a collective society we can begin to age with far more grace and in turn, create far more space for the health and social care system to regain balance, with responsibility for the way we choose to live, each and every one us, at the foundation of what we build from here.

 

References:

  1. http://visual.ons.gov.uk/how-has-life-expectancy-changed-over-time/
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/feb/01/ageing-britain-two-fifths-nhs-budget-spent-over-65s
  3. https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/time-to-think-differently/trends/demography/ageing-population
  4. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/395143.stm
  5. https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/statistics
  6. https://www.alz.co.uk/research/WorldAlzheimerReport2015.pdf
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2515569/
  8. http://edition.cnn.com/2016/01/21/europe/helsinki-seniors-home-oman-muotoinen-koti/
  9. http://metro.co.uk/2015/06/23/this-nursery-in-an-old-peoples-home-is-everything-thats-right-with-the-world-5261086/

Read more:

  1. Why does humanity have dementia? 
  2. Dementia – what is really going on? 
  3. Dementia – is it truly a mystery? 

577 thoughts on “What if the human life span keeps increasing?

  1. Yes I agree, a shift in how we perceive life is essential “Our focus on a healthy and successful life being one with an ever-increasing life span needs a shift instead to the quality of life lived…” why has it become a sign that we are doing well because people are surviving longer,,,surviving being the word, not flourishing. It is all about quality not quantity…obviously it is great to have full life and rich old age, but not just to lengthen it for the sake of function and survival.

    1. That is something i have recently appreciated when it comes to the end of a year or my birthday – not just celebrating another year older, but reflecting on the year I just lived and how i have grown or changed or evolved in that time.

  2. ‘Just as we all want our children to grow up to have successful careers and relationships, would we not equally want them to grow up and have a respectful, active and joyful old age?’ Staying engaged in and with life – no matter our age.

  3. it feels unnatural to decide that once a person has reached a certain age or condition that we are far more likely to remove them from family, and thus society. This exacerbates the situation by alienating the elderly at a point in their lives when they would be far better staying engaged in the daily goings on and continuing to contribute all that they are and experience they have lived.

  4. Many societies honour their elders for the wisdom they bring. Most industrial nations discard them as used up husks with the payback for their services are the drugs that allow them just to exist.

  5. We put a lot of effort into the early years, but not the latter years, it doesn’t really make sense when we consider life as cycles repeating, how we end life is as important as how we grow.

  6. An amazing sharing on the importance and necessity of the quality of how we live and the effect this has on our health, well being old age and the ripple effects on everyone we know and ultimately the whole world by our reflection. Very beautiful and empowering to truly love and care for ourselves.

  7. How we live when we are young shapes how we will be when we are old. It just makes sense because you can’t keep abusing something and not expect that down the track you will be left with the end result of that choice. The body is amazing but cannot rescue us when our abuse is too extreme, and should not either as these stops when health is affected can be exactly what is needed for us.

  8. Something I find interesting is how we maybe extending human life, but we do not look at what is really happening to these older people who are living longer, many become seriously isolated and alone, we place them in aged care and leave them to it, we do not have older people supporting society, they are assigned to the rubbish tip, waiting for death to come along. I have heard may older people say, “I am invisible” how is it that their lives are extended but they have no purpose. As a society we could really do with reassessing how we value and involve older people in daily life, there is wisdom and experience that they could share that is often ignored and not utilised.

  9. “How we live when we are young shapes how we will be when we are old.” This is such a great point, but one that is so overlooked when we are young. It would be very interesting to track someones life who started out as a young vibrant and fully engaged person in the world, but who over the years checked out as life took its toll and who then ended up in a care home with the needs of someone with dementia. And then to do the same with someone with similar circumstances, but who chose to take great care of themselves and learnt to not let life control them but remained fully engaged and interactive with the world until their 80’s. It could potentially be a model for health education for children from a young age.

  10. Our health systems internationally are very clearly sinking under the weight of our current levels of illness and disease. I work in palliative care and our patient numbers are expected to increase by 300% in the next five years, which really is something that I can’t fathom, but also in honesty is something that is going to be very difficult to support. But this is not the only area. Every area in healthcare would be experiencing the same kind of increases. It is clear that how we are choosing to live is resulting in the vast majority of what we are seeing in health care. There is much that can be done to change this, but we cannot approach it in the way that has resulted in this in the first instance. We do need to step back and see exactly where we are at and what has been created and without reaction or a need to fix move forward. However it will take everyone to play their part as we are all responsible for our own choices.

  11. If the population continues to grow as the statistics predict, this raises the importance of how self care is a significant and key component for developing public health strategies for our future health care system. Self care being taking responsibility of staying vital, healthy and being proactive in health measures instead of overriding issues and leaving it for ‘later’ to someone else to attend to.

  12. I am pretty sure the strain will increase and as happens now, extra money will continue to be pumped into the system to cope with winter stresses until we start to turn things around by looking at how we are living. Locally we have a GP service that has come to a grinding halt, most GP’s have left and one GP is trying to look after thousands of patients. They have had to admit they cannot continue to maintain their present service. Whilst the system needs to change as well, the way forward for us can be to have more self-care and responsibility for our own health.

  13. It is a big social problem how to take care for the demented eldery people. To have your parents in your house while suffering dementia is not so easy. As many times you can not leave them alone in a house as they do things which can be dangerous. So if you work you have a problem how to arrange that.
    For sure we have to focus on how and why are so many elderly suffering dementia.
    You see the drifting away, they don’t rcognize their famiy etc.
    We all drift more away in life not open to see in which miserable state humanity is in. We drift a way in comfort without seeing others anymore, what happens to them. Can we see here a pattern?
    Is it how we end if we live that pattern for long?
    Is this the key for change?

    1. There is much to indicate in the way we are living isn’t supporting us in the long term. Relying more and more on external stimulation and keeping our true selves more and more hidden, withdrawn and protected within has to take its toll on our willingness to participate and communicate in fullness in world.

    2. thanks for sharing this Sylvia. You bring home the practical issues of dealing with elderly relatives who may have dementia, and how the pattern of drifting away can start very early.

  14. “Just as we all want our children to grow up to have successful careers and relationships, would we not equally want them to grow up and have a respectful, active and joyful old age?” Yes indeed, but we seem to bury our heads in the sand about that so much more, and then having lived irresponsibly we cry victim to all that follows inevitably so into old age.

  15. ‘A UK study has estimated that the health and social care costs for dementia almost match the combined costs of cancer, heart disease and stroke(6)’ This is staggering when you allow yourself to feel the magnitude of this. Then add to this that the medical profession do not have any real understanding of preventing dementia or its cause and that diagnoses are being made in younger and younger people.

  16. A great article. Our elder years are constantly becoming an experience of pain, illness and loss of cognitive function. Is this truly how we ever envisioned our lives to be? Is it not up to us to look deeply at how we live now, before we find ourselves in the throes of illness.

  17. It is super inspiring when you see elders who are fully engaged in life, vibrant, contributing and wanting to give back and share their wisdom. In life we champion success and motion- constantly striving for the next thing often disregarding the quality of our lives. When we bring focus to this, that is where the true changes can happen.

  18. I have seen people in good care homes that they struggle to deal with even in there with the levels of dementia, and yet as a society we do very little to prepare for old age in a way that might lessen the probability of this demise, as if not talking about it will mean we won’t go that way. Is it possible that this very avoidance of reality and checking out makes it all the more likely we could suffer that?

  19. Perhaps we need to educate ourselves from a young age to understand the ageing process and respect and appreciate our ageing population as having something to offer! If we looked at ageing as a natural event which it is, and that we are all worthy of our place here on earth till it is our time to pass. With the knowledge of reincarnation maybe this will be the way of the future.

  20. There are certainly moves to start making people look at ways to take responsibility for their health. My observations just in the work place are that people know what to do, but don’t feel it is a priority. We tend to put work and others at the top of our lists and our own health and well being is much lower down.

  21. We are in serious trouble with our health. It is costing us more than governments can afford and yet not necessarily admit. The fact that we are an ageing population with declining health and wellbeing is telling us something about current approaches to management.

  22. We keep congratulating ourselves for bigger and more. Achievements such as taller buildings, quicker downloads, bigger produce, more powerful engines and living longer are celebrated. Yet we are not looking at the actual quality of life humanity is living.

  23. Is it not the quality of life that is important, rather than keeping people alive regardless of their state of health? So much emphasis is put on the latter, but how much integrity is involved here?

  24. Along side this we are getting younger sicker people too. I see people under 65, in fact a lot between 55 and 65 that are dying and there is limited to no support for them, unless they are in hospital or they have a network of family and friends to take care of them. Actually aged doesn’t really come into it any more, our health is worsening and our health care systems are really struggling under the weight of our deteriorating health. Most people do not consider how they will take care for themselves when they are unable to care for themselves. Some don’t even want to have those conversations.

  25. The quality that we are living gives it away, our aged are living longer but with dementia in numbers unprecedented. It is not something to aspire to but rather to address.

  26. A great shift is definitely needed to how we live and how we see old age and the true honouring of ourselves in our lives and others. The older I am getting the more I am seeing the responsibility we hold for ourselves our health and the participation in life with the wisdom we gather with a steadiness understanding and the importance of not giving up .

  27. If there is a problem in one age group there is an imbalance in all of our lives and is it up to all of us to change it.

  28. Exactly… The way we live now will directly reflect upon our life in our elder years… The fact that this is ignored so blatantly is an extraordinary reflection upon humanity’s singular lack of awareness of a bigger picture in life.

    1. Well said yes, that really sums it up – having presented to our local village on “Your Health and Well-Being” I can completely concur that the resistance to the awareness of our self-responsibility and the bigger picture was a truly extraordinary undercurrent even with using a gentle sharing approach to what we can all do.

  29. It’s very likely that life span will keep increasing as this is used as a measure of many things in our society, from a version of health, right through to the so-called ‘success’ of the medical system. Yet age clearly does not determine whether a life is truly well lived with vitality, loving relationships, and purpose.

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