The State Of Aging: What Are The Health Challenges Of A Longer Life?
This look at the state of aging provides a window into the challenges that come along with living a longer life - and how we can handle them
The lifespan of our current generation is ten years longer compared to that of our parents. On average, we also live 20 years longer than our grandparents. Thanks to the innovations of modern medicine and preventive care, health conditions that were life-threatening in the past are now easier to manage, allowing us to live well into our 70s and 80s.
This higher lifespan is a privilege and a gift to enjoy with family and loved ones. However, the fact that we’re living longer lives also poses questions and challenges and our modern society has never faced before, especially when it comes to the quality of life in these extra years. Because while science and modern society have helped people live longer, seniors don’t often have a lot of control over how they age.
Many seniors have yet to age with dignity and grace
In 2019, the Centre for Ageing Better released a report called The State of Ageing in 2019: Adding life to our years, which highlights the health, economic, and societal implications of longer life expectancies. According to the report, the number of people over 65 is expected to increase by 40% in the UK and exceed 17 million by 2036. This is one of the biggest demographic shifts in decades, so it’s important to understand the challenges that this age group is facing, their implications on society, and what can be done to help them age with dignity and grace.
Although people in their 70s are more satisfied than ever with their lives and have much to look forward to, the fact that we are living longer lives also means we have to live with more health conditions. The report points out that nearly a quarter of people aged 50-64 are affected by two or more chronic conditions, which leads to disability, frailty, low mental health and overall lower quality of life. Seniors with vulnerable economic backgrounds are also at higher risk of experiencing housing problems and even living below the poverty line. Additionally, chronic health conditions limit senior’s professional lives, forcing them to seek early retirement and quit the labor market in their early 60s.
An ageing population is of the biggest demographic trends in the rest of Western Europe, which is why it’s all the more important to pay attention to their needs if we want to understand how future generations will experience old age.
Health conditions that are common in the senior population
Given the prevalence of chronic health conditions over the age of 50, most people have come to accept them as a natural part of ageing. However, there are ways to delay the onset of these conditions, manage them, and prepare financially so that they don’t take a toll on your wellness, career, finances, and mental health. For example, seniors in the UK and other wealthy countries spend more on voluntary health insurance even if in the past this was a rare practice.
Over 50s health insurance is also more affordable and many companies agree to cover pre-existing conditions after a few years of payment. However, most seniors are still advised to get health insurance before they get sick and the companies perceive them as high risk.
In the UK, the medical needs of the ageing population have put a lot of pressure on the NHS and experts forecast that by 2030, the number of seniors with these long-term health conditions will reach seven million:
The two main types of arthritis, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, are more common in the senior population and the risk of being affected by this chronic health condition increases exponentially after the age of 50. In the UK, it is estimated that more than 10 million people have arthritis, which makes it one of the most serious health concerns. Caused by degrading joints as a result of aging, arthritis causes severe joint pain and mobility issues. It is also one of the main causes of falls, which are the main causes of hospital admissions in the NHS. Although there isn’t a cure for arthritis, its symptoms can be somewhat kept under the control so that seniors can live pain-free and independent for longer.
High blood pressure
High blood pressure, or hypertension, affects approximately 65% of the senior population and it’s one of the most dangerous chronic health conditions because the symptoms can be non-existent. For this reason, doctors recommend people over 60 to check their blood pressure regularly, even if they otherwise feel fine. More often than not, noticeable symptoms appear only when the blood pressure has reached dangerously high levels. Unmanaged, hypertension can lead to coronary heart disease, which is one of the leading causes of premature death among seniors.
Blindness and degrading eyesight
Although blindness can also be caused by accidents and genetic factors, aging is the main culprit. In the UK, more than 600,000 seniors are coping with age-related macular degeneration, which can have devastating effects on their quality of life. Fortunately, blindness and degrading eyesight are preventable and modern solutions such as laser eye surgery can make a noticeable difference. Increasing awareness among seniors on the importance of eye tests every two years is key in reducing the incidence of sight loss.
Cancer is one of the most, if not the most complex medical condition that the modern world is dealing with, and that’s because cancer isn’t just one disease: there are more than 200 types of cancers, which can affect patients differently depending on their age, lifestyle, genetics, and hereditary factors. Unfortunately, the risk of developing certain types of cancers increases as we get older and experts point out that one third of people will suffer from cancer at one point in their life. But thanks to modern medicine, cancer is no longer an automatic death sentence, especially if caught in the early stages. To reduce the risk of cancer (especially breast and colorectal cancer), health authorities are investing heavily in prevention programs for people over 55.
Dementia and its most common forms, Alzheimer’s disease, affects approximately one million people in the UK and most of them are 65 or older. Manifesting through episodes of forgetfulness and verbal difficulties, dementia is unfortunately not completely understood, which makes the importance of an early diagnosis even more important. Delaying the onset of dementia by just five years could reduce the number of deaths by half.
Living longer is a wonderful blessing, but new health concerns come along with it. With teamwork and creative thinking, we can make longer lives healthier and happier than ever.