What if the human life span keeps increasing?

by Rebecca, Student, 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? 

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

  1. Thank you Rebecca, and that understanding that it is the quality of life that is essential actually has to start all the way from childhood, from kindergarten even… Making sure that our kids are not just being processed into more intellectual fodder but are actually staying connected with themselves

  2. I have a feeling that the problems we are facing at the moment and near future are a result of our collective irresponsibility. It is already known for a long time that lifestyle is important, we know all these things but we keep going and going because we think we will not be affected by it but we will. As the body is the marker of all truth as Serge Benhayon has presented and in time it will show what we are doing with it. So the question becomes why are we not living what we know to be true day in day out?

  3. It’s interesting how things just do not match up these days – we are living longer, we have far more expertise, resources and knowledge and yet we are getting sicker, and we don’t like ageing and some of the behaviours we see in adults are totally immature. It feels like we just cannot accept, and are just having a major hump about anything and everything and the reality is the last thing we want to look at.

  4. I’d say that the ‘young and carefree(careless)’ attitude may be seen in our younger years but it’s not there in the joyful, caring and sensitive earlier years. I feel very young and yet I don’t disregard the fact that my choices don’t come with consequences. The live forever young attitude disregards the truth of our bodies and seeks to remain irresponsible rather than young.

  5. There was a time when the social expectations of a generation were quite simple, when we hoped for good steady jobs and an easy retirement. Good health was always there too, but somehow it seemed less important than making sure the fundamentals of life were taken care of, maybe because there was not the rates of illness and disease that we have now. Now, we hope that there will be enough care for the ageing generations, now we hope that health will not be so bad, because bad is inevitable. This does not seem to me to be a current that can keep on going, that there has to be some kind of a breaking point where the realities of life, of what life is and what it is all about are taken out in to the light and what is creating ill health on such a massive scale is finally brought to account.

  6. With those statistics on cancer does it not make sense to review and look at the way we are living life, the choices we make which will then be played out in how we feel and what the body is experiencing. I know when I have made changes to support my body, to care and nurture my body the whole quality of my life has shifted. It has been a huge confirmation that I choose my life and how I live.

  7. I absolutely agree Rebecca that “How we live when we are young shapes how we will be when we are old” and the fact that is does simply shows how, up to now, the true education of children as to the care needed for their bodies and the responsibility they have to do so, has been sorely lacking. We can apply all the quick fix band-aids to the ill-health of the world but until we start at the beginning, when the child is young, we are never going to be able to see the change in these shocking statistics that we would all like to see.

  8. There are more and more signs that the lifespan is increasing less and for some population groups like white people in the US and to a lesser degree those living in the UK their mortality is actually rising at the moment which means their life expectancy is actually decreasing.

  9. “How we live when we are young shapes how we will be when we are old.” And as we all live in cycles, how we are living at the end of one life shapes what we will meet as we begin the next life.

  10. I agree our life span is increasing however the quality of life is missing for many, especially when dementia sets in because it affects the whole family, and the more we continue to commit to life, and interact with those younger than us the less likely we are to succumb to dementia.

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