If you shop for birthday cards you’ll find the funny, the odd and the entertaining. But among them there’s a surprising number for those who make it to their 100th birthday.
So how many Centenarians are there in New Zealand? Based on the 2013 Census, Statistics New Zealand puts the number at 561. Five years on and given the fact that for nearly 200 years mankind has been pushing back ageing, that number is likely to be higher in the 2018 Census.
My late mother-in-law who was fond of self-deprecation especially in her later years, once half-joked that ‘old age sucks’. She half -joked because she was still alive to say so – but at the same time, quite unwell. And she was right because for some the path to becoming a Centenarian is not exactly a pleasant stroll through the twilight of life.
The issues surrounding ageing in this century are complex and come with a host of ethical questions driven by science and technology, as British gerontologist Professor Sarah Harper pointed out recently She is the founder of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, and was in Auckland to give a presentation on Human Longevity – Myths and Possibilities. for the Royal Society, at the Auckland Museum.
She ranged freely over the history of ageing to the current debates about science and technology in a riveting 45 minute lecture. A video of her speech is well worth a visit. This is simply a summary of some of the main points she raised.
She began by going back to the world’s first Centenarian, a Dutchman who was born in 1788, served as a foot soldier in Napoleon’s Army and died in 1899, aged 110 years. During his life there were an estimated ten Europeans who reached 100. That record – just shy of living in three centuries – was finally broken in 1966.
Today there are 14,000 Centenarians in the whole of Europe. (Pictured is 117 year old Italian, Emma Moreno, believed to be the oldest woman in the world) So who lives the longest and in which country? France and Japan – and women. From 1841 to the present, life expectancy has increased. Why women? Professor Harper said that at first it was believed to be lifestyle – men having harder lives – though she wryly contrasted that theory with those of women going through childbirth and multi-tasking throughout their lives. She said that genetic factors might contribute to women’s lengthier lives and pointed to the XY chromosomes for men as opposed to the XX ones for the opposite sex.
“If something goes wrong, then women have an extra X” she said. “There is a genetic reason for women being able to fight off viruses and bacteria… it means ‘man-flu’ might be true”.
She pointed out that in 1851, half of the European population died before they had reached 45.
“Now, half the population is going to reach 80” she said, listing improvements in nutrition and lifestyle generally. Respiratory and circulatory diseases both peaked and fell during the century – the first after WWI and the second almost 60 years later with huge public health campaigns against smoking. The incidence of cancer increased but the number of deaths went down.
It sounds as if we’ve reached a collective well-being, though not quite, according Professor Harper. Living longer raises questions not just about life expectancy but about healthy life expectancy Oxford studies have shown a huge gap in inequality in the UK and the USA between the top ten per cent of the population who live in affluent areas and the bottom ten per cent who live in depressed ones. The gap, she said, has implications for healthy life expectancy.
“If you are a man living in the most deprived areas of England and Wales, then at 65, you can expect to live into and through your 70s, but all your 70s will be lived in ill-health” she said.
“If however you are one of the top ten percent living in one of the most affluent areas, you will live to your 80s and won’t go into ill-health until your late 70s and 80s.”
She did have some good news though about reduced dementia rates.
“It’s possibly something to do with drugs, exercise and diet but mostly really to do with education” she said.
“There’s a very interesting relationship between education and dementia. Better educated people have fewer symptoms. Whether it’s better educated people being better at hiding their symptoms or whether education stimulates the brains, that’s unclear but we know there is an association”.
If that’s unclear then so are some of the issues confronting Professor Harper and others at the forefront of this debate. She outlined a few of these:
- Bio-tech. “With 3D printing we can now print hearts; we can now print bits of the body”.
- Nano-tech with adult stem cells. “We can take a skin cell, turn it into a stem cell, then re-programme it so that it is a therapeutic stem cell. We know already that we can grow muscles, but stem cells are linked to cancer and a certain percentage of people will develop cancer. Science is driving us into ethical questions in this area”.
- Broader implications – generational succession and the inheritance of assets from parents…what happens to the younger generations?
Whoever thought old age could also provoke so many challenges?