There is no doubt about it, we are all living longer.
Like most things in life, increased longevity brings with it opportunities and challenges – in this case for us as individuals and collectively as a modern society.
Much of the gains of the 19th century resulted from a focus on helping babies to survive their early years, followed later by the ongoing development of antibiotics. In the 20th century most of the benefits ensued from a focus on non-communicable diseases and lifestyle diseases such as coronary disease and cancers. Now the focus has moved to the challenges of older age including mobility and support for independence. Ongoing advances of DNA (human genome) mapping underpins growing confidence in the earlier diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of illnesses, diseases and conditions leading in turn to further advances.
In the 21st century, more focus will be directed to the brain. Already we are seeing significant advances in this area and more are expected in the coming decades.
What about you?
Thinking about these issues at a community level is interesting and challenging, particularly from a policy perspective. Clearly aged care options (both in and out of the home) will be in demand in the coming years and this is an issue that concerns us all in one way or another – as tax payers, as potential users of aged care services or as the carer or relative of someone in need of aged care assistance.
Just over 20% of 65-year-olds are expected to die in the five-year group containing the current average, which means nearly 80% won’t. So for the majority, the life tables are not particularly helpful.
So what can be done?
More than 20 years ago a series of long-term studies began which aimed to address this issue and to answer the question, “why do some people live longer than others”. These studies follow large groups of people over many years.
By the beginning of this decade results were beginning to produce a significant amount of useful information about who died, who survived and, most importantly, what made the difference. A series of factors have been identified including your environment (or surroundings), your current health, your attitudes, your parents (and their health and longevity) and your diet or eating habits. The information uncovered in these studies combined with life table information can help individuals to position their own lifespan better within their age group. Whilst this sort of personal analysis is only able to provide a guide, the results can be much more useful than simple averages.
As well as giving a sense of personal lifespan, these studies help reveal why a person may be different from the average. People can now make more informed decisions about what they might do to influence their own remaining time frame.
It is also becoming clear that the factors that influence longevity are also likely to influence quality of life.
People can already better understand and take more control of the remainder of their lives. The website www.mylongevity.com.au has a free life expectancy calculator which helps people to take this step. While there is still a long way to go, we can now begin to answer ‘what about me?’
Where is this leading us?
At the personal level, knowing more about your personal longevity has implications for financial, medical and even career advice. Understanding your possible personal time frame invites stronger commitment to decisions about finance (how much money might you really need), health (you can target the things you need to live both well and longer) and career (how long will you seek to maintain the value of your capabilities and experience). Personal time frame considerations underpin all these conversations.
At the community level, greater longevity awareness provides a context for dealing with the challenges an increasingly older community is creating. Increasing longevity is already changing Australian society. Greater personal longevity awareness will enable us collectively, and individually, to stay ahead of (and change the rules of) the game.