Longevity: How to make the most of the extra years
The first person to reach the age of 200 has already been born, says Stuart Kim, Professor of Developmental Biology at Stanford University. As medical and technological developments push the average global lifespan higher and higher, the question of how to make the most of those extra years becomes increasingly important.
Here’s a fun fact: a person born 150 years ago could expect to live roughly half as long as a person born today. We’re talking about the UK here, as the British Office for National Statistics (ONS) keeps excellent records of this sort of thing.
These figures hide something else, though. According to the ONS, the rise in life expectancy up to 1950 was likely down to improving health among the young. This would include factors such as declining infant mortality and the growth of immunisation. What this means is that, for the most part, those who made it through childhood weren’t living much longer than they’d always done. The average age simply went up because fewer people were dying young.
After 1950, however, this pattern changed. Since then, most of the gains have been down to improved health in later life thanks to medical advancements – for example, the ability to treat heart disease and cancer.
You can see the effects of this all around. People joke about 40 being the new 30. But it really is – and 70 is the new 60, and 80 is the new 70. People are living longer, healthier lives across the globe. According to Pew Research, in 1990 there were 91 000 people aged over 100 worldwide. In 2015, there were 451 000. By 2050, there will be almost 3.7 million.
Stretching the limits
What’s more, this may be just the start. In his 2015 book, ‘Growing Older Without Feeling Old’, Rudi Westendorp, Professor of Medicine at Old Age at the University of Copenhagen, says he believes the first person to reach the age of 135 has already been born. Some think this estimate is conservative. Dr Stuart Kim, Professor of Developmental Biology at Stanford University, has stated that the first person to live to 200 is probably already among us. There is even speculation that we may be just decades away from unravelling the mystery of eternal life.
Over in Silicon Valley there is considerable interest in the quest to live for ever; books, salons, and seminars on the topic are now commonplace and venture capitalists are pouring money into longevity start-ups. Google’s Larry Page was one of the proponents of Calico (California Life Company), a business whose goal is to combat ageing and increase the scope of wellness. And why not? Once you’ve earned a few billion dollars, what you can do is limited not by money, but by the number of years you have on earth. For tech moguls, death is just another problem to be solved.
While Silicon Valley may be fixated on quantity, others are more concerned with quality. In 2012, the UN started publishing its ‘World Happiness Report’. This ranks countries according to factors including generosity, freedom to make choices, social support, and GDP. In 2018, the social-democrat Nordic countries, with their fairly high taxation and strong social safety nets, occupied the top four slots (Switzerland ranked fifth). The Netherlands, with its cycling, low obesity, and general liberalism, was at number six.
Notable too is that Canada (which is far more socially minded than the US) was at number seven and Costa Rica (which famously has no army and spends heavily on the environment and education) was at number 13, five places ahead of the US. The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan has gone one step further, focusing on Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product.
In 2018, the social-democrat Nordic countries occupied the top four slots in the UN World Happiness Report.
We are seeing this on a more individual level too, with a growing interest in filling our longer lives with rewarding activities and better physical and mental health. The recent wellness movement, which includes everything from mindfulness to healthy eating and new approaches to fitness, is one example. Another is a renewed focus on living the good life with the help of a guiding philosophy, such as Stoicism.
Given that longer lives have become the norm around the world, it makes sense that we do what we can – both personally and as a society – to ensure those additional years are lived fully and under the best possible conditions. It may well require a significant shift in our approach to education, employment, healthcare, and the fabric of our homes and cities the world over, but if those changes could help to improve global quality of life, surely they are worth exploring.
VISION: Living Better
This article is a part of the ’Shifting Lifestyle’ series, in which we observe how ageing populations and extended longevity are altering global lifestyles.