09 Sep Happiness one of several keys to living a long and good life
THIS year, the number of pensioners in the UK exceeded the number of minors for the first time in history. That’s remarkable in its own right, but the real “population explosion” has been among the oldest of the old – the centenarians. In fact, this is the fastest-growing demographic in much of the developed world. In the UK, their numbers have increased by a factor of 60 since the early 20th century. And their ranks are set to swell even further, thanks to the ageing baby-boomer generation: by 2030 there will be about a million worldwide.
These trends raise social, ethical and economic dilemmas. Are medical advances artificially prolonging life with little regard for the quality of that life? Old age brings an increased risk of chronic disease, disability and dementia, and if growing numbers of elderly people become dependent on state or familial support, society faces skyrocketing costs and commitments. This is the dark cloud outside the silver lining of increasing longevity. Yet researchers who study the oldest old have made a surprising discovery that presents a less bleak vision of the future than many anticipate.
It is becoming clear that people who break through the 90-plus barrier represent a physical elite, markedly different from the elderly who typically die younger than them. Far from gaining a longer burden of disability, their extra years are often healthy ones. They have a remarkable ability to live through, delay or entirely escape a host of diseases that kill off most of their peers. Supercentenarians – people aged 110 or over – are even better examples of ageing gracefully. “As a demographic group, they basically didn’t exist in the 1970s or 80s,” says Craig Willcox of the Okinawa Centenarian Study in Japan. “They have some sort of genetic booster rocket and they seem to be functioning better for longer periods of time than centenarians.” The average supercentenarian had freely gone about their daily life until the age of 105 or so, some five to 10 years longer even than centenarians, who are themselves the physical equivalent of people eight to 10 years their junior. This isn’t just good news for the oldest old and for society in general; it also provides clues about how more of us might achieve a long and healthy old age.
To read more about how happiness and psychological health, among other things, leads to living a long and good life – click here