When he was asked at his birthday party by some impudent pup of a reporter how it felt to be 80 and old, celebrated French entertainer Maurice Chevalier – who made it to 83 – replied, “Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative”.
There are now about 450,000 centenarians – those aged 100 and older – in the world and, in many parts of the world those in official old age beginning at 60, as decided by the United Nations, are the fastest growing segment of the population. There are an estimated 800 million people world-wide aged 60 and older.
Australia is predicted by the Federal Government’s “Intergenerational Report” released last March to have more than 40,000 centenarians in a total population of 39.7 million in 2055. In 1975, there were 122. The number of people aged 65 or over is forecast to double and about two million will be 85 or older.
In 2055, the life expectancy at birth for men is projected to be 95.1 years and for women at birth, it is predicted to be 96.6. A century ago, life expectancy in Australia was about 55 – and these were the good old days? If I was alive then I would have been dead for more than a decade.
The report also suggests that the percentage of Australians older than 65 and still in work will grow from 12.9% today to 17.3% in the next four decades.
The ancient Greeks, who were rather clever inventing democracy, weren’t always so bright – they thought that ageing was a disease. Quite the reverse actually in many cases.
The human immune system encounters millions of potential dangers every day and as the body’s police force, it needs to spot these dangers. For this, we produce unique white blood cells which are tailored to the molecular appearances of millions of different invaders. When they recognise a foe, they stick around forming an “immune memory”. The next time it turns up, they help rally a rapid response.
Professor John Lupton, the Chair of Respiratory Medicine at the University of Queensland believes that this memory can last a long time.
He told the BBC, “People who have gone through various epidemics, their immune system can remember the virus forty or fifty years in some cases. It does begin to drop off in your 70s and 80s, but there is a bit of a sweet spot for people – particularly from your 40s through to your late 60s and early 70s – where the immune system remembers the viruses experienced over the years.”
There is a lot of historical evidence to back his assertion – the 1918 flu pandemic was the deadliest in human history killing some 50 million people but it was most lethal for those usually thought of as fit and strong aged 20 to 40. The 2009 swine flu outbreak followed the same pattern with most fatalities under the age of 65.
And there’s good news for those with allergies too. While the ultimate causes of allergies are still hotly debated, all are medicated by antibodies.
So, again the older you get the less severe the symptoms are likely to be – allergic disease peaks in childhood and then seems to decrease throughout late adolescence and into the 20s. In the 30s there is resurgence until people get into their 50s and 60s when the symptoms are less common.
Experts also believe that older brains are actually smarter than previously thought. Professor Michael Ramscar from Turbingen University (Germany) says we have misunderstood how the brain ages.
“The number of neurons in the human brain peaks at around 28 weeks after birth but as many as half of the neurons produced die by the end of adolescence. Since we don’t think of the period from birth to 18 as one of hideous decline, it seems safe to conclude that brain size as measured by neuronal numbers is not much of an indicator of anything.”
The BBC has identified several studies which show that older people have more – and better – sex that might be thought.”A study of the sexual activity and satisfaction of women in their 80s found that half still had orgasms ‘always’ or ‘most of the time’ during sex. A survey of people over the age of 60 found that 74% of men and 70% of women reported a greater sexual satisfaction than when they were in their 40s,” they have reported.
I can’t wait to hit my 70s and I’m even looking forward to my 80s now.
But, let’s face it, getting old is not all fun, fun, fun – a friend of mine has said that he gave up the grog when he discovered he got the same effect by standing up quickly.
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