Taking the longer view on longevity

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Adj Professor John Kelly

Heart Foundation National CEO

People are living longer, a trend that’s set to continue. A result of advances in medical science, medicine and the related growth in our understanding of human biology, there is however more to this story than immediately meets the eye.

The year 2044, according to some estimates, will see approximately 18,500 Australians turn 100. For the year 2015 the figure was 2,643.

The latest evidence of this increased longevity is a new British study  - published in medical publication The Lancet Journal - which projects life expectancy to top 90 years in some developed countries within the next decade-and-a-half. The study also confirmed increased life expectancy in all developed countries with Australia projected to rank fourth globally in overall life expectancy by 2030. 

The evidence is compelling. Figures from the most recent Intergenerational Report (2015) show that by 2054-55, 2 million Australians (4.9 percent of total population) will be aged 85 and over. By comparison, in 1974-75 this age group represented less than 1 per cent.  

There is however a common tendency to assume that longevity automatically suggests a healthy, fulfilling life. This assumption would be wrong.

Longer life expectancy among the general population brings significant challenges – not least being its effect on the public health system. It’s a problem already exercising some of our sharpest public policy minds; as it should.

The increased burden on what are already stretched public health resources has significant long-term economic and social implications. 

Increased physical frailty and a greater likelihood of longer term illness as people age, means that while advances in treatments and medication bring about decreased rates of morbidity, there is much that needs to be done around prevention. In short people are getting older, but this does not mean they don’t fall ill at greater rates as they age.

A key part of the answer is quite simple and it comes back to the issue of prevention. Encouraging healthier habits throughout the community, regardless of age or background is key. These revolve around physical activity and good nutrition – both areas in which the Heart Foundation has been a highly vocal advocate through its own programs and initiatives as well as in its representations to Government and other key decision-makers.

The Heart Foundation walking program is a testament to effectively engaging the community to participate in a way that is easily accessible, with benefits that are both physical and social.

Instilling such habits across the community, preferably at an early age, but at any age regardless, is critical if we’re to avoid the perfect demographic storm descending on our finite health and social infrastructure. Acting now on measures aimed at prevention will save lives, and valuable resources in the future.

A challenge for those involved in public health is how we can get individuals to commit to healthy change strategies. Many people understand what makes for a healthy lifestyle, but most seem challenged to commit to and maintain healthy behaviours and interventions that lead to healthier lifestyles. We must put more effort into integrating emotional, physical, psychosocial and behavioural components of lifestyle changes.

Government has a key role to play and we’re encouraged by the Commonwealth Government’s commitment to preventative health measures as well as the bipartisan enthusiasm for encouraging active, healthy lifestyles throughout the community.

It is telling that the aforementioned British study projects that the United States will fall further behind other developed nations in the longevity stakes – due in part to health conditions caused by poor nutrition and low rates of physical activity

Addressing these demographic challenges will require a comprehensive, sweeping approach. It involves health policy of course, but beyond that, it asks questions of our future work patterns and the implications for our broader economy. As it stands, Australia faces declining workforce participation rates – a factor of an aging population. Historical ideas around retirement may need to be re-imagined, but again, this will depend largely on the health of our older population.

All these factors are closely linked. The British study draws a strong correlation between longevity and a nation’s economic state of health.

Living a long, fulfilling and healthy life should be a legitimate aim for anyone. It appears we have the first part of that equation sewn up. It’s the very important ‘healthy’ aspect that still needs some work.