Picture Ayanda Ndamane/ African News Agency (ANA)
Picture Ayanda Ndamane/ African News Agency (ANA)

Ageing in the 21st century: what you don’t know can kill you

By Opinion Time of article published Oct 20, 2020

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By Craig Baker

Experts worldwide have called it “a situation without precedent”. Everyone from the UN to the World Health Organization (WHO) and Time magazine have called it the most pressing and compelling fact of our generation: people are living longer but not necessarily better.

“We soon will have more older people than children and more people at extreme old age than ever before,” wrote the WHO in a report in 2011. “The number of people aged 65 or older is projected to grow from an estimated 524 million in 2010 to nearly 1.5 billion in 2050.”

In 2016, Nobel scientist and celebrated biotechnology researcher Alex Zhavoronkov claimed that he expected to live to 150. In 2000, Steven Austad, a renowned biologist specialising in ageing, told Scientific American: “The first 150-year-old person is probably alive right now.”

This is significantly higher than most people’s three-score-and-ten expectancy. But is it all good news?

Says the WHO: “As both the proportion of older people and lifespan increases throughout the world, key questions arise. Will ageing be accompanied by a longer period of good health, a sustained sense of well-being, and extended periods of social engagement and productivity, or will it be associated with more illness, disability and cost?”

While the average 85-year-old may soon expect to live another 20 years, the data shows them as likely to have the same quality of life and health ailments as 85-year-olds suffer today. The additional cost of living longer under these circumstances portrays a rather bleak future picture of “longevity but with frailty”.

Researchers at the UK’s Newcastle University Institute for Ageing, for example, predicted in 2018 that the number of older people with four or more diseases will double by 2035.

For the past few decades, the leading causes of death in elderly people by far have been heart and cardiovascular disease. However, these remain among the most preventable and treatable critical illnesses and are enjoying decreasing mortality rates worldwide thanks to the advance of medicine.

This may mean that suffering from a heart attack or cancer will be far less likely to kill you in 2040 than it was in 2010.

Up to this point we have seen the ageing of generations in which smoking, frequent alcohol consumption and the consumption of a questionable food pyramid was the norm. Although many of our future senior citizens are living in a time that is far more conscious of what it means to be healthy, this is not yet ubiquitous, even though increased exercise, lowering alcohol consumption, following a balanced diet and stopping smoking proved to lower the likelihood of a person suffering a stroke, cardiovascular disease or several forms of cancer.

So, if not heart-related issues or cancer, what will it be? The answer may surprise you.

Notwithstanding that many people are starting to embrace healthier ways of living, the prediction is that “(2015 to 2035) will see a 118percent rise in those who have diabetes, and a big jump, too, in cases of arthritis”, according to the Institute for Ageing. A study in the US showed that diabetes kills more people in Africa than it does in Western Europe. Diets high in processed foods and sugars, together with increasingly sedentary lifestyles, are to blame for this scary phenomenon.

Another more insidious cause of death may be your bank account.

With people living longer but seldom saving enough for retirement, and with the added financial pressure frailty or a sickness such as diabetes can cause, there is a real risk of many elderly people simply running out of enough money to survive.

According to a 2017 Sanlam Glacier report, in the case of a couple aged 65 today, there is a 50% chance that one of them will reach age 94 and a 25% chance that one of them will reach 100. Yet only 8% of South Africans retire with sufficient savings.

There are surprises awaiting many people in their prime if they believe that they will get old much the same as their grandparents did.

The changing nature of the ageing process that today’s generation faces only highlights the need for financial security and the importance of good life insurance and a sound retirement plan.

Craig Baker is the chief executive of MiWayLife Insurance.


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