Everyone knows people are living longer, and the main reason for the increase in life expectancy is that we don’t, generally, die young. Sounds fatuous, but life expectancy was kept low in the past because until the last century 50% of children died before they were five. Better sanitation has made all the difference, and medicine has done wonders through vaccination and antibiotics to allow most of us to reach old age. But medicine has not done to later life what it has done for early life, and so if we survive until retirement all those other diseases that would not have had the chance to get to us can now have their moment of triumph. Thus we face threats to our health that before would not have been on our radar…arthritis, dementia, cancer, heart problems, Parkinson’s and so on. The modern world has not yet found solutions to these deadly enemies, and until it does, life expectancy in the general population will not increase much.
It is therefore up to us to do what we can to extend our lives. The buck definitely stops here, on the chair you are currently sitting on; studies are showing there is in fact quite a lot we can do to ensure we reach 100 and beyond.
Recent data suggests that the oldest old — centenarians in particular — may actually enjoy better health than people in their 70s or 80s, hinting that those who do survive into old age may be stronger to begin with, and less likely to experience disability. So what can we do to be one of the chosen?
Research has found that we can change our rate of ageing, and one of the most powerful tools to achieve this is the mind. A Danish study comparing 2 groups of nonagenarians born just 10 years apart showed differences in mental sharpness. The group born later was more mentally alert, scoring higher on cognitive tests than those born earlier. The study was carried out by the Danish Aging Research Centre and included 4000 people in their 90s, including those living in assisted care as well as those still living independently. Not only were the group born in 1915 more youthful mentally, they were also 32% more likely than the group born in 1905 to live to 95.
Two explanations for this have been suggested. One is higher rates of physical activity, which has been linked to better mental ability. The other is better education. Another study published in Neurology asked participants to report how frequently throughout their lives they engaged in intellectual experiences such as extracurricular activities when they were at school, but also reading books and journals, doing courses and generally continuing to learn new things when older. The autopsies when they died showed that 14% of the variability in mental capacity was due to how many mentally stimulating activities the participants had engaged in, both earlier and later in life, even when other factors which can influence dementia such as age and education had been accounted for.
It is as if using our brains gives us the edge. Having exercised our brains throughout life can mean we have more brain power to draw upon when ageing threatens to affect these skills. Cognitive activity throughout a lifetime can increase our back-up files, and not only that, intellectual activity actually slows the rate at which you lose brain power— and it helps no matter how much you start out with.
These studies provide hope that we can steer our course around and away from the pitfalls that threaten others who are less aware of the benefits of having a rich social life, a wide range of intellectual interests and regular exercise. An intelligent approach to our mental and physical health increases our chances of soaring over the rocky terrain of the adventures that later life promises. With this knowledge, more than ever in history we can hope to live long, fulfilling and independent lives.