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? 

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

  1. We really need to start having this conversation on a global level, it should be discussed at the UN, G7 etc for us to wake up to the crisis that is unfolding in our young and our old.

    1. I agree Vanessa – this conversation needs to go global and big! We can no longer escape the reality of our own making.

    2. Vanessa I agree, although before any of our world leaders can talk about it, we, the people need to start to talk about it in our tea rooms at work and around our dinner tables at night. People have believed for years that governments dictate change but it has to be the other way round, people have to become the change that governments then bring in.

  2. Increased life expectancy can actually be a big boon as well as a huge burden. About ten years ago there were a lot of articles about countries being bankrupted by age care costs until people realised that much of that can be deflected by increasing the retirement age and that is happening now. Since then the next issue has appeared – as we get sicker we are in danger of bankrupting ourselves through health care costs. Here the remedy is not so simple.

  3. What is paramount in our healthcare system is “the quality of life lived – not just physical health but the wellbeing” of every individual – this includes not only the patients but the staff and management too. Only when every person takes responsibility for their own health and wellbeing will the experiential understanding of this then bring about true and lasting change.

  4. As we learn to become more integrated as a society we will find that our later years, as we approach our passing over, will become a time when we share our experience and appreciate our part within the whole, and still living life to the full. As I learn to take responsibility for how I live and the impact this has on my health I am letting go of being a victim as I understand more fully that I can support myself while at the same time becoming willing to accept help from others.

  5. Why do we wish to live longer? We have a common thread with all living things, we all have a self-life! Do we wish to be like a banana peel that takes 2 years to decompose?

  6. We are busting at the seems in so many ways, environmentally, our health, financially… something has got to give. The question is will we allow the correction or will we keep fighting.

  7. ‘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?’ Wow, this question is really something for everyone to ponder, how do we set not only our children up for their old age, but also our own old age? Do we give it any attention whatsoever?

  8. What is really alarming about our current state of affairs is that we are very quickly losing our marker of what it means to be healthy. Will we soon be classing ‘health’ as having only one disease instead of two or three at once?

    1. I agree Rowena, health has become a sliding scale to accommodate our spiral into serious ill health – widen the ranges, lower the expectations and it makes it all look less like the crisis it is.

  9. I have the feeling not only the view how to be with and treat elderly people needs a change, but also to prepare oneself for the years of being older in the way to truly look after one’s body and not to focus on the years of pension in order to get a relief and reward from the working years, but to build a life of joy concerning working so that we even being elder can contribute to the community and are able to work at least part-time.

  10. The actual energetic quality of life being lived is such an important part of the equation here; the quality of relationship that we have with ourself and others is fundamental to our well-being.

  11. It’s interesting that we ourselves are not saying to the medical profession that we’d prefer to live a few months of quality than 5 more years of excessive medical intervention and a severely compromised quality of life. Perhaps this is a reflection of the quality we choose to live in day to day, and that we have not already established our lives to be of a high quality that we refuse to drop below.

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