Living to 150 – what for?

Let us bear in mind that when there is a crisis, it is the elderly who get the first hit

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

“Formerly, being old meant being regarded as elderly, that is mature and wise. Respect was practically automatic when one came across such persons, who were also self-respecting. But nowadays this is no longer necessarily the case, and having greying hair and a balding head doesn’t mean much to the impatient youngster revving his SUV when an elderly happens to inadvertently sidestep a pedestrian crossing, or is taking a bit longer than usual to go across. I have personally witnessed such a situation where a senior citizen was being copiously abused by a younger person…”

An article in the issue of this paper of Friday last (June 11), about recent studies estimating that there is a theoretical possibility that the human lifespan could extend to 150 years has prompted me to ask the question posed in the title and reflect on some realities about ageing and old age. Humans always seem to be dreaming about physical immortality, but concretely, I wonder how many people would want to live to 150, even if science made that possible?

I know some old people who are past 90, in relatively good health and surrounded by family, but there are many more others who are not as old but have some health problems and live alone. How long would they like to live on like this? Perhaps the answer is captured by the remark I heard from someone who had been widowed for about two decades, had children who were well-settled and didn’t have any lack of material comfort, and yet ‘am in God’s waiting room with my bags packed and ready to leave as soon as the call comes!’

Let us bear in mind that when there is a crisis, it is the elderly who are the first to be hit. This has happened with the Covid pandemic in England, for example, where ‘88% of Covid deaths have been people aged 65 and over,’ according to an article about ‘systemic ageing’ there (The Conversation, June 11). Some years back when there was a heat wave in Europe, nearly 20,000 elderly lost their lives in France, mostly those living alone in apartments who died from dehydration and lack of timely medical care.

This points to an underlying reality, which is the interconnectedness of social, medical and biological aspects of the phenomenon of ageing. The first two are the ones that are most apparent to us as they require handling with a certain immediacy for which we are not always prepared: either we postpone such preparation or are in denial until we are jolted out of our complacency by some event that impacts our individual or family life.

In the… olden days, it was taken for granted that as one grew old one would live with one’s children, one way or the other, and most probably it was in the same house where one had lived and had brought them up. It was familiar surroundings and familiar faces, so there were no seismic adjustments to be made. By the by this cosy and smooth transition has been affected by societal changes driven by both local and global forces and attitudes. Thus, the advent of nuclear families, children living abroad for shorter or longer periods if not actually migrating, the elderly living longer and preferring a certain independence, in other cases the need for prolonged caring, homes for assisted living and for the elderly being set up and regulated by national authorities – these are some of the major factors with which all of us are now personally familiar and are called upon to cope with one or several of them.

The perception of and attitude towards older people has also changed, for which again there are complex reasons. Formerly, being old meant being regarded as elderly, that is mature and wise. Respect was practically automatic when one came across such persons, who were also self-respecting. But nowadays this is no longer necessarily the case, and having greying hair and a balding head doesn’t mean much to the impatient youngster revving his SUV when an elderly happens to inadvertently sidestep a pedestrian crossing, or is taking a bit longer than usual to go across. I have personally witnessed such a situation where a senior citizen was being copiously abused by a younger person.

But it is also a fact that public displays of confrontational and aggressive behaviours by the elderly when they are expected to show restraint in their language and gestures leads to a corresponding disappointment on the part of those who would wish to see them as role models. Instead, they are disdained and looked down upon as they are seen not to deserve the respect that they would otherwise have earned.

The most visible indications of ageing are physical and mental decline, with vulnerability to injury, disability and disease, more than one of which may be present and thus adding to the complexity of treatment. Many of the diseases of old age have been known to doctors for long, and treatments too have been available, and they are constantly under review and updated as newer diseases are discovered or fresh understanding of the known diseases comes to light. Recently, a new, expensive drug has been cleared by regulatory authorities in the US for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. But there is controversy about the data and efficacy.

It is a fact that the range of modalities and techniques for treatment has expanded so much – and continues to do so – but there is a real danger of what is known in the medical jargon as ‘therapeutic overkill.’ To put it simply, trying to kill a mosquito with a hammer: doing more investigations or proposing more expensive or complicated treatment than may be required. For some, medicine has become business – and even some laymen have made comments to this effect about measures in the budget that was presented last Friday. This is a conundrum which society as whole must seriously reflect upon and work on a way forward collectively.

That is why caution is necessary so as not to involve either the country or the individual in a spiral of expenditure which may result in little beneficial effect. Hence the accent on healthy living through a combination of health promotion and disease prevention measures.

Overall the world has witnessed growing life expectancy because of improving socio-economic conditions and developments in health and medicine that have allowed us, essentially, to mostly overcome the infectious diseases which are the real killers in the short term. The traditional view is of man’s lifespan being three-score and ten (70 years), but there are some countries with more people living much longer, and even becoming centenarians in larger than usual numbers when one compares them to other places.

One such cluster is in the island of Okinawa in Japan, which is reputed to have the largest number of active centenarians per 100 000 population. The main reasons advanced for this happy situation is their simple way of living, close to nature, on a diet of fish and of fresh vegetables free of pesticide or fertilizer residues, regular walking and avoidance of vehicular transport, doing regular meditation and following ancient cultural practices which lead to body-mind balance and thus sane living.

Most of the world’s population do not have these ideal conditions, or the cultural mindset of the Okinawans. But if we should as a country want to, it is surely possible for us to create something approaching this environment to live in – and to leave as legacy for the next generations. In the meantime, one need not seek to hide one’s age by superficial means, for there is such a thing as ageing gracefully, whether one aspires or not to be 100 or beyond. As the Greek philosopher Seneca said, ‘As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is but how good it is.’

If we concentrate on living a good life, who knows that it might be a long life too? But 150 years? Nyet!


* Published in print edition on 15 June 2021

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