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? 

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

  1. Gone are the days when all the generations used to live together (with exception to some) and were at hand to help each other, in whatever stage of life. It could be giving birth, raising the children or getting old and dying.

  2. I think there is much for us to learn and re-discover in the way that we live our lives and the impact that this has on our health and wellbeing, our quality of life, not just for ourselves but for all around us too.

  3. “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. ” I so agree Rebecca. Also with your point: “How we live when we are young shapes how we will be when we are old.” We need to take care of the quality of our lives, not celebrate the quantity of years lived. What is the point of living to 100 if we live in a crippled body and a demented mind?

  4. “How we live when we are young shapes how we will be when we are old.”
    A truth we all know, yet absolutely ignore. It is why we ignore and discard such innate wisdom that needs to be explored, discussed and addressed.

    When we have our children and want all the wonderful things in life possible for them, I for one never considered them being old, or even myself being old, so instilling in them a self care and deeply regarding way of living was not on my radar. Now though it is, something that has come with not only aging, but learning to respect and care for my own body. It is this respect for our bodies that we need to build to again reclaim our elder years and to be a valued and contributing member of society

  5. A very telling statistic and especially as dementia is only one in the very many illnesses and disabilities that become prevalent in older age – “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.” Three of the UK’s largest cities populated by those with this one illness, time to ask the very needed questions that are answered here in this article.

  6. “How we live when we are young shapes how we will be when we are old.” I wonder how many of us in our latter years wish that we had paid more attention to this when we were younger? But then perhaps its not about telling our younger generations this fact, but living by example that would really suport them to take notice. For if we live a life that is full and vibrant that keeps us feeling young and amazing, and looking great as we approach our sixties and seventies this would surely inspire young people to want to know more and to put it into practice for themselves.

  7. How we live when we are young shapes how we will be when we are old. This makes so much sense to me now that I am more aware and much more self responsible, but I can relate to not choosing to be responsible and living life not really caring about my body and the choices I was making in life. If we keep holding onto the false pretence of, it’s because I’m getting old, we will go further down the track of ignorance and worse ill health across the board.

  8. It makes sense to me that there has been a huge increase in the rates of dementia because who really wants to be kept alive to such an old age when their quality of life is so low due to poor health and lack of connection and care with and from others?
    Of course one’s mind would check out and look for a mental escape from such a miserable existence. If society would understand and accept the truth about reincarnation this could help the current need to keep people alive so long at the expense of their true quality of life because they could see their dying process as merely a set up and transition to the next life.
    I love the concept of combining an elderly care facility with a young children’s care center as both these groups could support each other in so many ways.

  9. We certainly need to change our way of thinking and our consciousness, for years I was part of the crowd that ate, drank, smoked, did anything we liked completely not caring or even being aware of the consequences and because there was always a crowd it seemed like a normal thing to do. Now the mates I used to hang with are all on heart pressure pills and all sorts which to them now is normal for men of our age. We need to wise up or the future does look bleak.

  10. “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.” We tend to dismiss the elderly especially after retirement age but if they are offered a purpose there is a wealth of knowledge they can bring. One such area is our schooling system where we see children that can’t cope falling behind and giving up. Bringing our elderly into the schools especially at the reading and writing stage offers a purpose to elderly knowing they are supporting the younger generation and the over stretched education system, and the children could feel supported and offered space free of the pressures of the classroom. Dementia is a giving up on life and it can start in our school years and show up as we get older so this way we get to support both ends of the spectrum.

  11. Are we really the intelligent species, with the ever increasing numbers of lifestyle diseases such as obesity, diabetes and addiction? We may be able to manage symptoms but what is the real quality of our increased lifespan?

  12. When we are focused on increasing life span rather than the quality that we live in we are caught in maintaining security.

  13. It is interesting to consider the separation in society where being young is promoted and the elderly put aside as a lived life which is of less value. So we see this in people who are young, they are ignorant of the way they live their lives in relationship with their health but when they get older their health is the most important thing in the world and they allow the medical system to keep their bodies functioning to the bare minimum they find is still acceptable. How is it possible that we can be so distinct in all the cycles of our life? Could it be that in a way we live in disconnection, and more importantly irresponsible to who we are and from that choice bring to our families and societies?

  14. I remember growing up and reading people say that we as a race, ought to be exterminated like vermin. This, it was put forward was self evidently the only way to deal with us and our inevitable out of control population increase. This shows so poignantly how the intelligence that got us in this mess in the first place, just proposes more abuse and would effectively like to wipe us out. Reading your account here Rebecca it’s unmistakable to me that it’s not us that are the despicable ones but the energy we choose to let through. If we stop for a moment and see the devastation we’ve caused we must start to comprehend that the time for us to change is at hand and that there’s no fix in this world that will substitute and make good for us living without connection to our heart.

  15. Rebecca you have presented very sobering facts beautifully in a way that has given us all much to consider. Excellent blog thank you.

  16. If as a teen I was told ….”How we live when we are young shapes how we will be when we are old.” I would have arrogantly thought “when we get old life is not worth living anyway, so put the pedal to the metal and enjoy the fun you can have in your body while it still works”. Arrogant, I know, but true none the less. I used to look at people above 25-30 years old and see they were sooo weighed down by life and it’s experiences they literally didn’t enjoy living unless there was alcohol involved.

    Lately I have had the absolute pleasure of living a full life at the age of 42 and due to the amazing elderly role models I have in my life, I am looking forward to that phase of my life as well. I feel if our youth had vibrant full role models in their later years this arrogance would not have as much weight.

  17. Connection is one of the cornerstones of our lived life. Quite often as we age we can become withdrawn from society partly due to the ageing process and the effect that has on our body. We can become less mobile and the more we withdraw the greater the feelings of intensity. With connection there comes an expansiveness and greater willingness to be engaged with others and the years drop away and age is no longer such an issue.

  18. “How we live when we are young shapes how we will be when we are old.” It’s how we convey this to our younger generations, and that there is a responsibility that comes with how we live our lives that will really make a difference. Rather than ‘telling’ them perhaps we need to live by example, so that they have role models to inspire them to live all of who they are, rather than to conform to someone else’s ideals and beliefs.

  19. It is indeed encouraging to see the increasing number of initiatives appearing on the scene to create community and independence for our ageing population. It not only offers greater human dignity in our later years but may also relieve some of the burden on our health and social care systems. But most important is the recognition that responsibility for our later years is determined by the lived quality of all our preceding ones.

  20. Without a doubt, there is there so much more for us to learn about how to truly care for our bodies and what being truly responsible really means.The state of the world is the ultimate reflection of that.

  21. The statistics that you share are enough to stop everyone in their tracks and ask – why is this happening and what can we do? – but unfortunately the majority of humanity are in a “state of denial”. They simply don’t know what to do so they leave the job of sorting it out to the professionals who are probably just as confused. Meanwhile we actually have the answer in our own hands; to begin to take loving care of ourselves and full responsibility for our lives. Yes, to change the world we need to start with us first.

  22. How we live when we are young shapes how we will be when we are old. This is so true and makes so much sense. If we make healthy and true choices for ourselves as best as we can through our lives, when we grow older we will have a foundation of our own loving support with us and not have a need to check out to not feel our past choices.

  23. The denial of ageing and of death in society is preventing us from seeing the beauty in both of these experiences.

  24. Longevity is not the marker for a successful life and until we stop trying to keep people alive at all cost and focus on the quality in which we live our lives (which is down to us) we will continue to see death as something to be avoided for as long as possible at the expense of all else.

  25. This is a beautiful thought provoking sharing Rebecca. You express the need for us to value and love our elderly. Respecting and appreciating what they have to offer including their wisdom. Young or old we all have something to offer each other.

  26. I was talking with a 94year old woman today who was being kept alive by weekly injections for the last few years. She told me that she had decided it was time to stop the injections, that her quality of life was diminishing and that she felt it was time to go. I loved her attitude, she said she was ready, she had spoken to her family and she felt she had about 3 weeks to go max. She was very much at ease with her decision. I look forward to spending more time with her before she passes over.

  27. I can see a main reason elderly are no longer being looked after by family in their later years is due to the fact our elderly generally require a lot of support and most families have both the parents/adults in full-time work and do not have the capacity to offer the support that is required…..

  28. Health services are trapped in a way of thinking about health, wellbeing, illness and disease that has no sustainable future. This will become clear as the resources to sustain them will be under a very severe strain and their capacity to save lives will dramatically diminish as the result of the way the people choose to live.

  29. ” 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 ” I like this idea and it’s also educational in that it may inspire young people to make wiser choices in their youth.

  30. A seismic shift indeed is needed in our perception of aging. Heck I can remember feeling the fear of getting through my twenties and nearing my thirties and thinking time is really starting to limit itself! This is indeed not a healthy attitude and one that reduces the overall enjoyment of life at all ages.

  31. Living longer but living well is the challenge of our times. If we care for ourselves now we may be able to stay engaged in work longer and engaged in our communities more.

    1. Exactly Jenny I always wanted to life forever, yet now what I treasure most is the quality that my life will be now and in the future.

  32. Old age is not about writing your self off. Old age actually represents wisdom that has come from a life of learnings and observations that can be shared with all around. The problem is our society seems to have lost its value of this wisdom as have the elderly too lost their value in themselves, and so as a result they have ‘written themselves off’ so to speak as has society. However, this is never too late to change – we can begin at any time to appreciate all that we bring with all of who we are, at any age, and this is part of the process of restoration. For how we live as young will be the offering that we can bring as we age, and this can be a very powerful reflection for everyone around. So ultimately, no matter the age, we are all role models at some point in time, the question is what kind of role model do you want to be?

  33. In today’s society there is such a focus on celebrating quantity – such as age, achievements etc, but at what point did we abandon quality for quantity and where has that now left us?

  34. “How we live when we are young shapes how we will be when we are old” There is an ancient and fundamental science to this, known today as ‘The Livingness’, that should be taught in all schools; how to live vitally in all aspects of life, look after yourself and give back to humanity.

  35. Definitely we need to be having these conversations – I recently visited an aged care facility and it was obvious that some were very aware, wanting to engage in activities and with others there was a kind of given up look, staring into space as if the person inside simply wasn’t there. Having seen how the elderly brighten up when grandchildren are present, I agree there needs to be a mix of the generations – no longer are grandparents living with their offspring, mainly I assume because everyone is at work and there is no-one to care for them, or there simply isn’t enough space as people live in smaller homes. Whatever the reason, and however it can be arranged, our elders still have a lot to offer and should never be sidelined.

  36. if we are all going to be living for longer, then how we are living will need to be addressed, because it simply cannot be the case that we live longer in deeper states of illness and disease, if we are going to extend life, then let’s make it worth extending through true purpose, love and brotherhood.

  37. “…How we live when we are young shapes how we will be when we are old…” yes, and there are always opportunities to introduce self-care and love into our lives that offer a ‘U-turn’ in our health and wellbeing.

  38. As the body becomes more frail with age it becomes more obvious that we need to take great care and honour our preciousness, vulnerability and fragility as well as our strength and determination. In fact being able to accept ourselves, as we are, in our elder years is crucial to how we are able to live a full and enjoyable life…..appreciation the next step.

  39. Having a society that values and appreciates old age, where the wisdom that each person has can feed back into the community is not only inspiring it is the only true way forward.

    1. And it is only in coming to truly value what can be represented by our elder community – namely true wisdom from lived experience that is not greater than the young but an equally important part, will we begin to live in a way that will sustain us for our whole lives

  40. It is interesting to consider why research into the prevention rather than the cure, is not more fully invested in for many of our modern day illnesses and disorders.

  41. How long does a can opener last? Have you ever used a pencil to its end? Our body is like everything that is created, it has a shelf life and just because something is old doesn’t make it fit for purpose. When something including us is well taken care of, there is always a use, need and purpose. Duct tape can fix just about anything to get more life out of it! What if age lengthening methods for us looked like duct tape? We would look like a mummy.

  42. If we consider that we often over ride what is caring for the body when we are younger because it is robust, it is not surprising that we may have more conditions to live with as we age. Medicine offers a lot to us in terms of treating many symptoms, however we have the possibility of living well if our lifestyles were more caring of our bodies.

    1. Exactly jennym. It’s never too late to take responsibility for our health and well-being and the quality with which we walk this Earth.

  43. Living to the fullest, to the end… and in the quality that is needed for every step and stage is what we can bring when we stay committed to life.

    1. Living less leads us towards the comfort that may keep us settled for a while but the yearning to ask the BIG question – what is life all about resurfaces sooner or later.

  44. Our elderly suffer a lot from loneliness. Our natural way of being is living together, connect and interact. There are ways to create a situation that all benefit from, the wisdom our elderlies have gained from living their life is worth sharing with others.

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