These are the people who live the vast majority of their lives escaping the diseases that afflict everyone else; they tend to live 90—95 percent of their lives in excellent health. Admittedly, not everyone is blessed with the genes that will allow them to see 100 candles on their birthday cake, but medical advances are helping greater numbers of people to reach closer to their potential life span.
The rise in life expectancy, coupled with a steady decline in birth rates, has led to an explosive growth in the number of older people gracing the planet. This year, almost a quarter of the global population will be aged 50 or older. In many Western countries and in Japan, about one in four people are aged over 60, and if the present trend continues, this is expected to reach one in three by 2050.
Whilst people might be living longer, populations across the globe are also being challenged by rising levels of chronic disease. In Australia, 87 per cent of people aged over 65 are dealing with chronic disease. Of these, 60 per cent have comorbidity, the most common of which are arthritis and cardiovascular disease. Here’s a statistic from the UK, in honour of starting this article with Queen Elizabeth – in the UK, five out of six people in their 60s have symptoms of degenerative diseases such as osteoporosis, arthritis, coronary artery disease and Alzheimer’s.
By the time symptoms of chronic disease appear, the underlying damage has been done, and often over a period of decades. To expect that medications can undo years of smoking, over-doing the alcohol, eating rubbish and thinking that a walk to the mailbox is an active day — well, we’re not asking for much, are we? Researchers have found that it is possible to achieve a longer and healthier life, but to do so we need to make better lifestyle choices, especially when it comes to diet.
Lifestyle and luck
We know from twin studies that only about 20—30 per cent of a person’s life span is attributed to genetic factors (although there’s a greater genetic component when we talk about the ability to live 20 years or so beyond average life expectancy). The rest comes down to environmental and social factors, and a decent amount of luck.The optimistic interpretation from these findings is that anything up to 70—80 per cent of how well a person ages depends on their lifestyle and health-related behaviours.
It is no surprise, then, that interest has grown with regard to the Blue Zones, places in different parts of the world where people tend to live very long and healthy lives. One thing these areas have in common is that they share a low-stress lifestyle that includes factors such as a healthy diet, daily exercise and strong social relationships. Enter the concept of ‘positive biology’ – seeking to better understand the underlying causes of exemplary health, happiness, cognitive ability, and healthy ageing.
Positive biology doesn’t detract from the importance of research into specific diseases and learning more about why illness is associated with ageing. However, it also makes sense to focus on learning lessons from the people who live long, happy, and healthy lives as a key to improving the lives of others.
Karen Hocking is head of Government Relations and Industry Development at Complementary Medicines Australia, the industry body for the Australian complementary medicines industry.