By Dr. Kate Gregorevic
We are living in a revolutionary time with radical social change. I’m not talking about the sexual revolution, feminism, marriage equality or civil rights. There is a more fundamental change happening that is reshaping social demographics in a way never seen before: the aging population. By 2020, for the first time, there will be more people on Earth over the age of 65 than under the age of 5. This is the result of the incredible social and scientific advances like clean water, obstetric care and vaccinations. The aging population is an incredible success story.
It is very clear these changes in life expectancy are not genetic. In 1900 the average life expectancy worldwide was 41, now in most developed countries, it is around 80, this huge shift in a very short time cannot be due to genetics. Many people are the first in their family to reach very old age. The increase is also not only due to decreases in infant and maternal mortality, there have been real improvements in management of chronic medical conditions. Thanks to longitudinal studies like those conducted in Framingham, Massachusetts we know so much more about managing risk factors for disease. These studies have shown that the way we live, with movement, food choices and medical management of things like blood pressure and cholesterol can make a huge difference to health in older age.
The average sixty year old now has around twenty-five or more years of life. Even for people who are already frail, finding positives in your life can lead to better health. People who are frail are more likely to suffer adverse effects when they become unwell and are at significant risk for developing disability. This risk can be mediated by taking steps to bring meaning and joy to day to day life, like making friendships a priority, or using your skills in volunteer work.
Even if we have had made some less than ideal health decisions in our youth it is not too late to make changes. Each New Year provides an opportunity to re-evaluate our priorities. We spend so much of our lives worrying about our careers, our children, other people’s opinions. In your sixties and onwards, it is time to consider your own health first. There is no point ensuring the health of all those around you if you are not healthy yourself.
Rather than thinking that it is too late to make changes to live your best life, there is no better time to make changes to optimise health. In studies of people who lived to one hundred and beyond, many did so despite having a chronic medical condition from their eighties onwards. Even more importantly, they did so with physical independence. Good health is a cumulative process. Small changes, like getting regular check ups with your doctor, eating well and exercise can make a meaningful difference to length and quality of life.
Every day we are alive is a chance to learn, grow and change. The chance to live a longer life is a chance to meet new people, explore new places and new ideas. It is within your power to make life choices to ensure you’re physical capabilities for as long as possible. Today is the best day to start.