By Patricia Salber

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I am reading an interesting book, An Introduction to Gerontology,” edited by Ian Stuart-Hamilton.  He is a professor at the University of Glamorgan in Wales.  Because of this, the book has a distinctly UK flavor (ageing instead of aging and so on).  Also the stats presented are UK stats.  But the point I want to make here is universal, although I am going to use a table from the book as the basis of the discussion.

We all know that people in the developing world are, by and large, living to older ages than they did in the past and that there are more and more old people and more and more really old people (90s, 100s).  But it is very interesting to look at how life expectancy has changed over a long period of time.  Take a look at this table, reproduced from Stuart-Hamilton’s book that shows life expectancy of individuals of different ages over the time period 1400 to 2009:

Age 1400 1841 1981 2009
0 35 40 71 78
20 48 60 72 79
40 57 67 73 80
60 69 73 76 82

 

What it shows is if you were born in 1400, your life expectancy was only 35 years compared to being born in 2009 and having a life expectancy of 78 years.  However, if you managed to live to 60 in 1400, you could still look forward to 9 more years of life compared to making it to 60 in 2009 when you would have 22 more years of life to look forward to (on average).

There is a very large difference in life expectancy of a newborn (43 years), but a relatively small difference, only 13 years, if you managed to get reach your 60th birthday over the 609 years shown the table.  So what this chart shows is that as the centuries have passed, fewer and fewer people are dying young.  Of course, we know this to be the case as infectious diseases that used to kill young children have been conquered, nutrition has improved, and childbirth has become safer.

But we must not lose sight of the fact that there has also been improvement in life expectancy for older people.  Stuart-Hamilton notes that in the UK, the mortality rate for people 75 or over has fallen from 137 deaths/1000 in 1911-15 to 83 deaths/1000 in 2006-7.

Because there has been a decline in birth rate in the UK (and many other industrialized countries) and a fall in the death rate of older folks, there has thus been a shift in the percent of the population that is over 60 – from ~4% in the 19th century to ~20% today.  To quote from the Stuart-Hamilton book, “today, approximately two-thirds of the citizens of developed countries can expect to live past 65 and about a third of these will live past 80.  In contrast, in 1900, only a quarter of the population could hope to reach 65.” Thus, we are living a bit longer, but most importantly, far fewer people are dying young – at least in the developed world.

Here at TDWI, we are interested in exploring what it means for health and healthcare to have a large chunk of the population aging into or already reveling in the Golden Years.  How can they stay healthy, active, and energetic?  What can they do when some part of their body begins to deteriorate or decline?  Are there good options if some body part is so broken that it can’t be fixed?  We hope to explore answers to these questions in future posts.