It’s become a piece of unpleasant common wisdom that the trend towards longevity, unthinkable for the vast bulk of our species’ existence, is, in fact, somewhat unwelcome. As women produce fewer children, people warn of a “silver tsunami” as hordes of aged dependents exhaust the productivity of the remaining youth. It would be tempting to reply, “Well, fine, you kill yourself then.” Yet one must remember that disturbing fact claims have a habit of being proved correct. While the gravity of the threat posed by such demographic shifts is arguable the pressure on public services and private citizens is bound to be significant.
Our species has little experience of being old and has yet to explore its possibilities: that the aged will be unproductive and dependent is, I think, presumed. Must they be? Some aren’t. Robert Marchand can break cycling records at 100; Fauja Singh, a centenarian, has run a marathon; John Sanford was still publishing books at the age of 98 and Leila Denmark only retired from the medical practice once she’d lived a formidable 103 summers. I’m not saying all, most or many people can achieve such heights – I’d guess they’ve had splendid genes and better fortune – but as people who are young enough to be their children are considered very fortunate to be so much as maintaining their households they are evidence that improvements could be made; as well as inspiration for it.
When lifestyle choices are the objects of concern it’s typically for two reasons: because they’re lethal or because they’re fattening. As long as we’re slender and alive, it seems, there’s no cause for alarm. Yet the quality of that life – which, no, can’t be reduced to the weight at which it’s lived – is rarely granted comparable attention. Our choices of consumption, exercise, rest and so on factor in determining our physical and mental state as we travel through the decades, and the idea of losing or maintaining one’s strength and cognisance is at least as disturbing or compelling as the notion of enduring for a few years less or more, so it’s a question that deserves inquiry.
What research has been carried out is largely confined to journals but it’s interesting stuff. Marian McDurdo, for example, noting that debates around the issue of how to provide for weakened pensioners “has dominated discussion to the virtual exclusion of a search for strategies which might improve their overall health”, claimed that while fortune and genes have a sizeable role “physical activity in old age can “rejuvenate” physical capacity by 10-15 years”. Julie Mares has found that a good diet and exercise is associated with a huge decline in the risk of macular degeneration. Barberger-Gateau et al suggest that healthy eating may decrease the threat of dementia and Alzheimers (and, intriguingly, Boyle et al claim that might also be true of “a purpose in life”). I’m aware that veggies, fish and walking are hardly the stuff of fantasy but if they give one more years of strength and independence they’ll have delayed gratification on a thrilling scale.
I mentioned societal implications of ageing but while I’d have to lie to claim that they’re not serious and demanding of amelioration I’m not interested in this subject because I want to keep pensioners in work and off benefits. It’s because the idea of being powerless and dependent, with the boredom and embarrassment such a condition would produce, is terrifying and, for all the people who are trapped in it and the object of our often callous speculations, must be grim. To give people life was one of the great achievements of civilisation. To give them opportunities to maximise its potential would be as impressive.