Experts worldwide have called it “a situation without precedent” and a “first in world history”. Everyone from the United Nations to WHO and TIME magazine have called it the most pressing and compelling fact of our generation: people are living longer but not necessarily better.
“The world is facing a situation without precedent: We soon will have more older people than children and more people at extreme old age than ever before,” wrote the WHO in a report in 2011. “The number of people aged 65 or older is projected to grow from an estimated 524 million in 2010 to nearly 1.5 billion in 2050.”
Imagine a country like Japan where the population is living longer with negative population growth due to a declining number of new births. Japan is also highly technologically advanced in robotics so in the most extreme situation one can imagine the future Japan as a country that consists of mainly old people looked after by robots, with very little in the middle.
However long you think you’ll live, you’re probably wrong
The average, educated person alive today hopes to reach between 75 and 88 years of age, roughly, depending on their particular brand of optimism and family genes. However, in 2016 Nobel scientist and celebrated biotechnology researcher Alex Zhavoronkov claimed that he expected to live 150 years. He’s not alone. In 2000, renowned biologist specialising in ageing Steven Austad told the Scientific American: "The first 150-year old person is probably alive right now." In 2000, he bet fellow aging expert Jay Olshansky $150 that the first 150-year-old had already been born by 2001. In 2016, he doubled his bet to $300.
Living longer but not better
This is significantly higher than most people’s ‘three score and ten’ expectancy for their own lives. But is it all good news?
Says the WHO: “As both the proportion of older people and lifespan increases throughout the world, key questions arise. Will aging be accompanied by a longer period of good health (also often referred to as quality of life), a sustained sense of well-being, and extended periods of social engagement and productivity, or will it be associated with more illness, disability and cost?”
Experts, statistics and trend analyses worldwide all agree: people are living longer everywhere, but (beyond a certain age) not better. So, while the average 85-year-old may soon expect to live another 20 years, the data shows them as likely to have the same quality of life and health ailments 85-year-olds suffer today. The additional cost of living longer under these circumstances then portrays a rather bleak future picture of ‘longevity but with frailty’ across the globe.
Researchers at Britain’s Newcastle University Institute for Ageing, for example, predicted in 2018 that the number of older people with four or more diseases will double by 2035.
“In the population over the age of 85 years all diseases, apart from dementia and depression, will more than double in absolute numbers between 2015 and 2035,” said the study.
Cause of death? Unknown
If you’re wrong about when you’ll die, you’re probably also wrong about how.
“For the last few decades, the leading causes of death in elderly people by far have been heart and cardiovascular diseases, followed by cancer. However, these issues remain among the most preventable and treatable critical illnesses and are enjoying decreasing mortality rates worldwide thanks to the advance of medicine,” says MiWayLife insurance CEO Craig Baker.
According to Baker, this may mean that suffering from a heart attack or cancer will be far less likely to kill you in 2040 than it was in 2010.
“We need to remember that up to this point we have seen the ageing of generations in which smoking, frequent alcohol consumption and the consumption of a questionable food pyramid was the norm. While many of our future senior citizens are currently living in a time far more conscious of what it means to be healthy this is not yet ubiquitous, even though consistent adherence to increased exercise, lowering alcohol consumption, following a balanced diet and stopping smoking has been proven to lower the likelihood of a person suffering a stroke or contracting a cardiovascular disease or several forms of cancer,” adds Baker.
So, if not heart-related issues or cancer, what will it be? The answer may surprise you.
Notwithstanding that many people are starting to embrace healthier ways of living, the prediction is that: “Those years [2015 to 2035] will see a 118 percent rise in those who have diabetes and a big jump, too, in cases of arthritis,” says the Newcastle University Institute for Ageing, while a study in the United States showed that diabetes – formerly considered a “rich European disease” – kills more people in Africa than it does in Western Europe. Diets high in processed foods and sugars together with increasingly sedentary lifestyles are multipliers to this scary phenomenon.
Diabetes remains a major concern for elderly people, despite dropping cancer mortality rates. But another, more insidious cause of death may well be your bank account.
“With people living longer but seldom saving enough for retirement, and with the added financial pressure frailty or a sickness like diabetes can cause, there is a real risk of many elderly people simply running out of enough money to survive,” says Baker.
So truly now the race is on between death and poverty. In all seriousness however, this is a real problem already being faced in South Africa, that only looks set to get worse. According to a 2017 Sanlam Glacier report, in the case of a couple aged 65 today, there is 50% chance that one of them will reach age 94. There is also a 25% chance that one of them will live to age 100. Yet only 8% of South Africans retire with sufficient savings.
“There are surprises awaiting many people currently in their prime if they believe that they will get old much the same as their grandparents did. The unknown nature of the ageing today’s generation faces, only highlights the need for financial security and the importance of good life insurance and a sound retirement plan,” concludes Baker.