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The recently released CSO data indicated that the population above the age of 55 now stands at almost 19 per cent. This represents a more than doubling of that in 1980. In actual numbers, it is a little over one quarter of a million people.
This follows the trend in the developed world where the Stanford Center on Longevity indicates that there has been a 30-year increase in life expectancy. This is due, in part, to advances in medical sciences and allied fields including nutrition and sports science. Genetics, however, may be the dominant factor in that there are those whose lifestyle does not conform to generally accepted tenets of healthy living but who nevertheless live to an advanced age.
The late fitness guru Jack Lalanne, who died at the age of 96, promoted proper eating, exercise, positive thinking and relaxation. Continuing clinical and research studies have confirmed this approach. In fact, the diet recommended for longevity and disease prevention includes one high in vegetables, fruits and whole grains and very low in animal products and refined carbohydrates, in addition to exercising.
The importance of the mind-body connection has emerged as a significant factor. Meditation and mindfulness can play a critical role in stress reduction and weight control and are thus being promoted as part of the programme on holistic and preventive medicine now being emphasised.
Despite the advances made in the science of longevity, the average life span is 80-plus years. People 90 and beyond are still the exception, for the ageing process may be delayed by lifestyle changes but cannot be stopped. So the focus now is on research to delay and reverse the aging process and to developing a range of assistive technologies.
Thus efforts are underway to gain a comprehensive understanding of the ageing process in order to be able to obtain technologies to retard or reverse the process. The thrust here is in areas of cellular molecular biology and genetics. Multidisciplinary teams comprising physicians, biologists and biomedical engineers are engaged in seeking regenerative medical solutions and rejuvenation biotechnologies. These include stem cell applications and laboratory grown replacement organs.
As these technologies come to maturation and fruition, the need for ethical guidelines will become even more necessary and thus the present intense debates might seem quite mild in comparison to those that will rage in the near future. Many social and economic issues will need be resolved. Among the more urgent will be the financing of the burgeoning costs of an increasing and longer-living post-retirement population.
The quest to remain young “forever” will need to be revisited. Wouldn’t being fit and active throughout one’s life be a more practical and ethical goal? In this regard, recuperative and assistive technologies should be the focus of expenditure and effort.
Assistive technologies like prosthetics and intelligent robots improve the quality of life, irrespective of age. There are research robots that are quite effective in physical therapy and commonly used devices like intelligent walking sticks and personal mobile transport devices that allow aged or differently abled people to function effectively in the work and social environment.
The science of longevity, more than any other scientific endeavour, will have to confront, head on, the issue as to whether it is a desirable or realistic goal to engage in efforts to reverse the aging process. Who will make the determination as to what will be an acceptable lifespan, and what will that be: 90, 100, 120 years? Science and technology have succeeded in making our lives longer and more productive. They can also be used to bring about great misery and destruction. We need to be clear about the road ahead.