It’s an elite club – just 4,440 Australians are over 100 years old, which is still extraordinary given that 550 of them, or roughly one eighth of the total figure, hit their triple-figure milestone in 2015 alone. The march to 100 has never looked so achievable. So, what are your chances of getting there, and how will such a dramatic change in demographics affect the face of our society?
The aging face of Australia
In the latter part of the 19th century, the life expectancy of Australian males was 47, with females likely to reach 51 (or thereabouts). Contrast this with those born in modern times, where, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Wellbeing, males born between 2001-2013 are expected to reach 80 years of age, and females generally outlive this to arrive at 84.
While we’re not able to anticipate the scientific advancements of the coming decades, which may very well eradicate more disease and stave off aspects of the aging process, they’re still encouraging statistics to see.
Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen a 148 per cent rise in the number of Australians aged 85-plus, according to ABS data, accounting for more than 472,000 of us. Strikingly, there are almost twice as many females as males in this age bracket, reflecting the biological and sociological advantages of women in the area of ageing. A UN report into the global aging population, however, projected these differences to diminish over time, though females retain an evolutionary advantage.
Why women live longer
New research in The Economist explains some of the reasons why women age longer.
First, in Britain and comparable countries, men have typically smoked cigarettes and over-consumed alcohol at higher rates than women, but these habits are shifting. Men are now quitting both in higher numbers than women, accounting for the most significant shift. This pushes back on the tendency for young males to engage in risk-taking behaviour.
Other societal factors, such as workplace accidents and falling victim to violence, can be mitigated through community changes and legislation. No matter how great the shift in these sorts of social norms, says the researchers, males can still expect a biological disadvantage because their chromosomes degrade at slightly higher rates, and this contributes to the aging process.
The realities of living to 100
It’s not just a numbers game – you may think you’d rather not live to such a ripe old age. And undeniably, the chances that you’re mobile at 100 years of age, without chronic illness, and pain-free probably aren’t great. However, plenty of adults who are much younger than even life expectancy are experiencing those very limitations, with varying outlooks and attitudes. Furthermore, quality of life is a subjective term, with many centurions going on record to say they feel years younger than they actually are. In any event, how can we overcome the burdens of ageing?
Fighting disease and winning
For the first time in human history, according to this medicalnewstoday.com feature, we are about to have more people over the age of 60 on the planet than under the age of 5. This is a seismic shift, especially with global infant mortality halving over the past 25 years. We are truly a changing species, now capable of controlling much of what ails us, but with plenty of room to improve. Unlocking the human genome and understanding our biology on a more intimate scale has set us on the road to a host of novel approaches to battle disease (even big killers like cardiovascular disease), and pharmacological advances and improvements in acute care that leave us more likely to survive sudden injury and illness.
The studies published in The Lancet are also daunting in their medical predictions: although people are aging more healthfully than they previously were, they can also be expected to get there with higher rates of dementia and diabetes instead, increasing the likelihood that dependence on aged care facilities and medical professionals will be a fairly common into late age.
But it’s not just about individual health – the studies project that, unless countries introduce mitigating legislation, the economic insecurity that often comes with increasing age and disease burden will flow into a macroeconomic burden: in other words, getting old is going to cost us.
In a long-form article published by The Guardian last year, we are introduced to a number of scientists and philanthropists who see aging itself as a disease to be conquered. While this sounds outwardly absurd, if you think of the body as a biological machine whose components and mechanisms can be known completely, it follows that we might figure out ways to keep it running for longer, even if those ways are currently a bit of a mystery.
Also, far from being a fringe idea, these successful and well-educated figures are putting their money where their mouths are, with multiple millions being fed into just a handful of age-busting charities and organisations alone. To further incentivise research scientists, who often grapple for grants to carry out their work, major innovations in understanding or slowing down the aging process can expect to be considered for the Palo Alto Prize, a $1 million jackpot gifted to those who can “hack the code” of aging. So far, 15 research teams have made submissions.
An ethical dilemma
Perhaps one of the most frightening aspects of anti-aging technologies is the idea that it might not be available for ourselves and our loved ones. While some technologies, such as regenerative medicine, may remain prohibitively expensive for a long time, we have reason to expect (as discussed in this Atlantic article) that many innovations may come in the form of a drug, a vaccine or a genetic modification.
Naturally, these kinds of interventions may become cheap over the course of a few years, as the research costs are paid for and an expanding market is sought. Those with the means are always going to be best-placed to access new medical technologies, however, and having private health insurance may end up being the best way to do it without putting up a king’s ransom..
However, we must also look to the past: experimental science, such as cryotherapy (or being frozen prior to brain death), has been for the upper echelons of society, other far more dramatic advances like vaccines and penicillin have been for the people – all of them.
A new list of threats
With a world that is changing on a much larger scale than just our own population statistics, we face a new host of considerations. While climate change and aging may not seem directly correlated, we must be reminded of the susceptibility of older people to extreme temperatures, floods, fires and storm events. The reduced capacity of an aging body to cope with dramatic conditions, combined with the growing number of people who fall into that category, means that we need to prioritise the safety of the elderly as these events increase.
While we can’t predict in the long-term what the environmental norms might be, given that science, economics and politics must reach consensus in order to affect change, we can reliably foresee that we have a very vulnerable group in an increasingly vulnerable position, and no drug is going to answer for this.
Reasons to be optimistic anyway
There’s every reason to feel upbeat about the 21st century. Most problems in history have been solved by a combination of knowledge, innovation, bravery and hard work. Aging is a multi-faceted problem, compounded by disease and chronic illnesses. With each new game-changing discovery in combating health issues comes a tool to break down the barriers preventing us from reaching ‘supreme seniority’.
And when you get to 100, you’ll be honoured!
Becoming a centenarian isn’t just a remarkable occasion for the family, friends and yourself though – it’s also worthy of official recognition. It has been deemed so significant as to prompt personal messages from the Prime Minister, the Attorney-General and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The congratulatory letter from the Prime Minister will also include a certificate commemorating the occasion. You need only contact your Federal Member of Parliament to kick the process into gear.
A letter from the Queen will probably be enough to get you out of bed for the 36,525th time (approx).