Pushing back ageing…

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?

Share this:
Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.