Saturday 30 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Lecture Theatre 1
‘No pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home at Weston-super-Mare,’ quipped Kingsley Amis. We all know we are living longer, but what about the quality of our extended lives? The figures are staggering: average life expectancy has extended by as much as 30 years in developed countries during the 20th century; more than half of all babies born in wealthy nations since 2000 will live to see their 100th birthdays. In the UK by 2031, more than a fifth of the population will be over 65 and the fastest growing population will be those aged 85 and over. While these statistics might be seen as cause for celebration, society seems ambivalent. Our doubts are not simply caused by headline scaremongering about massed ranks of the elderly being a drain on pension funds and the NHS. We are also, understandably, concerned that living longer does not necessarily guarantee healthy and happy lives; medicine faces increased challenges from age-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s.
Accordingly, medical researchers are broadening their perspective from finding cures and extending longevity to include a concern with quality of life, or well-being, the current buzzword. It is argued that life-long clean living - exercise, moderation in all things and a healthy diet - reduces the risk of age-related illnesses, as well as helping people exceed average lifespans by up to a decade. Now, ageing experts encourage the young and middle-aged to take responsibility for their own future health by being careful today, and pensioners are expected to be au fait with foods that lower cholesterol levels, boost immune systems, improve digestion.
While ‘well-being’ may seem uncontentious, this approach still presents ethical dilemmas for medicine. What constitutes ‘quality of life’? Are we in danger of assuming quality of life is purely a corporeal thing? Might a few more years enjoying one’s grandchildren, even if very infirm, be a worthy aim of medical intervention? And what of new research that emphasises biological and genetic rather than environmental factors behind longevity? Some critics of public health initiatives fear they needlessly take the fun out of living, however old we are. Smoking in ‘old people’s homes’ is routinely banned, while a recent government health report targets ‘late-onset problem drinking’. When poet Jenny Joseph wrote, ‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple…spend my pension on brandy,’ she captured the pleasurable prospect of growing old disgracefully. Is this just a selfish and silly cliché, neglecting the need for us all to consider what effects our longer lives may have on carers and NHS provision?
Listen to session audio:
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; university finance and accommodation officer
journalist; agony aunt, Independent; author, The Virginia Monologues: why it's great to be sixty
writer; broadcaster; agony aunt, Cosmopolitan Magazine; author, About Time: growing old disgracefully
|Professor Jeremy Myerson|
Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design, Royal College of Art
|Professor David Oliver|
national clinical director for older people, Department of Health; consultant physician, Royal Berkshire Hospital; visiting professor, medicine for older people, City University, London
|Dr Marcus Richards|
programme leader, Medical Research Council’s Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing; reader in cognitive epidemiology, University College London
history and politics teacher, South London school
Agony aunt Virginia Ironside's views on euthanasia and abortion shocked many viewers of the BBC's Sunday Morning Live. But, argues Zoe Williams, she has a valid point and was brave to make itZoe Williams, Guardian, 6 October 2010
Getting old? Get over it! For too long those in short skirts have been telling us oldies we don’t matter: ‘you’re out of touch! Get out of the way, grandma! The next generation is coming through.’ Well, enough is enough. Because getting old is great.
Virginia Ironside, Penguin, 2 September 2010
Growing old isn't without its troubles but it has its advantages, according to the author Jane Miller. She tells Melissa Benn about the pleasure to be had in the loss of desire, envy and vanity, and how family life is the bedrock of her happinessMelissa Benn, Guardian, 29 August 2010
Keeping one's brain active, trying not to become depressed and eating a diet rich in fruit and vegetables are the best ways to ward off developing dementia, a study of almost 1,500 volunteers has found.Stephen Adams, Daily Telegraph, 6 August 2010
An attempt to rank end-of-life care in different countriesEconomist, 15 July 2010
A belly-flopping 75-year-old has produced the perfect riposte to our timid timesOliver Pritchett, Daily Telegraph, 15 July 2010
A new test can forecast extreme longevityEconomist, 1 July 2010
It's clear that the simple fact of growing older -- chronological aging -- is relentless and unstoppable. But experts studying the science of aging say it's time for a fresh look at the biological process -- one which recognizes it as a condition that can be manipulated, treated and delayed.Reuters, 21 May 2010
In ten years time 60% of us will be over 55. The retirement age is likely to move up to 70; modern medicine ensures that most of us will live well in to our 80s and most of us will choose to do some work, paid or voluntary, while we are still physically able. Yet older people have, as yet, no role in modern society.
Irma Kurtz, John Murray, 7 January 2010
Gerontologists consider the maximum lifespan for humans to be about 120 years. But with rising evidence for a geneticPhilip Hunter, Prospect, 15 January 2007