The Paradox of Living Longer

As the Greek philosopher Seneca said, as is a tale so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

The legendary ‘elixir of youth’, an alchemical potion that is supposed to make one remain ever young despite ageing in years has never been discovered. That hasn’t prevented people from dreaming of eternal youthfulness which, given its practical impossibility, leads to the default aspiration of immortality. That is conceived a being living forever after having reached old age but in a relatively fit condition.

Scientists are researching this possibility, but since it is at present unachievable, some people who are bent upon living forever have resorted to cryonics, which is about freezing humans as soon as they die, in hopes of reviving them after the arrival in future of medical advances able to cure the conditions that killed them. There are an estimated 200 people in the world who have been thus preserved in liquid nitrogen in specialized facilities maintained by some select private companies, of course at considerable cost. It goes without saying that this procedure has its critics in both the medical community and lay society as well.

Nevertheless, it is an established fact that people are living longer, in other words life expectancy at birth has been progressively increasing all over the world, with women living longer than men overall for several reasons that we need not go into here. This increased life expectancy is due to a host of factors, essentially improving socio-economic conditions such as cleaner environments and better nutrition, but also scientific advances that have led to public health measures like provision of sanitation and potable water, the discovery and large-scale use of vaccinations which have resulted in the control of major infectious killer diseases, along with advances in medical treatment which have helped to enhance both longevity and quality of life.

And that’s where the paradox lies, because as people live longer, they suffer from diminution of their mental and physical faculties, and are more prone to harbour chronic conditions which impact them adversely. Joints start to give them trouble, there are changes in the skin, loss of muscle mass which leads to weakness, accompanied by deterioration of hearing and eyesight, the latter causing difficulties with reading and night-time driving. Gradually more stiffness develops in the joints, perhaps with pain as well, and combined with weaker muscle and mental decline there is greater likelihood of losing balance and suffering falls, often with fractures as a result. There is a change in the sleep pattern, often insomnia, and also continence problems. Forgetfulness and memory loss also set in.

These issues start to crop up from about 60 years onwards, although this is variable, but the ageing population is increasingly made up of those who have reached the proverbial three-score and ten. At the same time, many are going past it to the 80s and even 90s, and the chosen few attain centenarian status. It goes without saying that as one becomes older the faculties go on diminishing further, again at variable rates in any population, and they can be either progressive, that is, taking place gradually, but can also happen with a certain suddenness – so that one fine morning you get up and ask hey what’s happening to me today, as you find that you can’t lift that object as easily as you did just the day before, or you can’t climb that staircase with as much agility. Or you suddenly find yourself not being able to put a name to a face which is familiar! This, as many of us have experienced, can be very embarrassing.

The presence of any chronic disease such as diabetes or hypertension will inevitably aggravate these accumulating woes which are the ‘natural’ adjuncts of ageing, because of the disease itself and the effects and side-effects of the treatment(s) required.

And then of course there is the major problem of adaptation and adjustment to the brutally changed mores of modern society which has gone for the nuclear family within which elders are not quite so welcome – as was dramatically illustrated and so vividly and realistically in the film Baghban featuring Hema Malini and Amitabh Bachchan in the role of the elderly couple. The children have moved out, leaving the parents or a single parent to fend for themselves; or if they are under the same roof are rushing along in another world of their own with little time to spare for those who gave all their lives in bringing them up!

My generation followed the fashion of building big houses, storeyed at that, with the expectation that children when they became adults would remain under the parental roof. Not only have many of them decided to stay abroad after studies there, but even those who come back chose to have their own houses and live separately. Despite this reality, the irony is that the trend of having big storeyed houses has not abated – of which only about 20% will be used afterwards!

So what is one to do with one’s lengthening years? Fortunately, over the past several decades the phenomenon of ageing has attracted the attention of several disciplines in the health, medical and social sciences, as well as in basic fields such as neuroscience which probes the brain. Many interesting findings have emerged out of these studies, based on which certain guidelines have been proposed which promote ‘healthy ageing’ – that is, to remain in an optimum state of physical, mental and social well-being as age advances by preventive measures that can mitigate the impact of the series of changes that occur with age as mentioned above. These allow one to successfully protect one’s health, security and independence, and live a more fulfilled and enjoyable life.

These measures must begin early in one’s life, and foremost among them to delay the onset of the frailties is regular exercise to which one may later add yoga which has been shown to be beneficial for many conditions and Tai Chi, the latter in particular having been demonstrated in specific studies to significantly reduce falls among the elderly. Attention to proper food and drink, going for check-ups as recommended by medical authorities, taking one’s medicines regularly if one is under any treatment, spending quality time with loved ones among family and friends, maintaining social connections to share common interests, keep the brain active by reading or solving puzzles, pursue some new hobby such as learning a new language, immerse oneself in nature frequently, and of course prepare for the rainy day with adequate advance savings.

But as the Greek philosopher Seneca said, as is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is. That way we can perhaps overcome that paradox.

* Published in print edition on 7 June 2019

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