“This Baby could live to be 142 years old” was the startling caption on the photo of a baby on the cover of Time magazine in the last week of February 2015. It announced that the special edition was based on “ Despatches from the Frontiers of Longevity” containing “new data on how to live a longer, happier life.”
Perhaps the most important fact is that ageing, or aging, to use the American spelling, which I can never quite accept, is not the cause of all the problems that are more common in older adults. There is no doubt that ageing exists as a normal biological process, which starts, as the phase of growth and development comes to an end, in the early twenties. The general effect is to reduce our ability to cope with such challenges as infection, loss of balance, or – the biggest challenge of the 21st Century – inactivity.
Until the age of ninety, the biological process of ageing has little effect on your ability to look after yourself, to engage with other people, and get about independently. There are three other processes which do cause problems however – disease, loss of fitness and negative attitudes, and all three inter- relate. In our weekly column over the next few weeks we will describe the effects of these three forces and their interaction with one another and with the ageing process.
Disease occurs more often the older the age group and although some of these disease are related to the ageing process most of them are due to a different cause – having lived for a long time, which is not the same thing the more years you live with a bad diet or in an unhealthy environment the greater the likelihood that you will develop a disease but this is not a result of ageing.
Loss of fitness affects almost everyone from the age of twenty when social pressures, such as getting a job that requires driving or sitting at a desk or both accelerate the loss of ability due to the ageing process but people who keep fit still perform very well, cycling 25 miles in under and hour for example.
Finally a negative outlook on life, influenced by the negative, and often incorrect portrayal of ‘old age’ as a period of inevitable and irreversible decline, hastens the decline, partly because people who adopt this attitude make no attempt to keep fit, let alone get fitter. Nor do they try to reduce the risk of disease.
These four factors affect one another , nothing can be done as yet about the ageing process but the other three can all be modified.
About the author: Professor Sir Muir Gray, CBE
Muir Gray consults for springchicken.co.uk, the lifestyle website for older adults.
He recently described himself (in a tweet) as the Don Quixote of the NHS: “tilting, always tilting.” As Chief Knowledge Officer of the NHS his job was defined by what he does—promoting improved care by the better use of evidence. Born, raised, and educated in Glasgow, he was a surgeon before he turned to public health in the 1970s. In the rest of his life he is developing Better Value Healthcare, whose mission is to publish handbooks and development programmes designed to get more value from health care resources in England, and worldwide.
Muir’s most recent book: Sod 70, the guide to living well is available here>>>. He is also the Director of the National Campaign for Walking, is married with two daughters and lives in Oxford.