The Academy of Medical Sciences has just published a report on ageing. It reveals that far from having lonely, decrepit existences, assailed by memory loss and physical infirmity, vast numbers of the elderly in the UK are living long, healthy, productive lives.
The stereotypical image of a nation in which rising numbers of pensioners are being kept alive by modern medicine – but are crippled by arthritis, heart disease and Alzheimer's, and live huddled and defenceless in old people's homes – is simply not true. "Healthy life expectancy is increasing at least as quickly as life expectancy," states the report.
Large numbers of elderly people are living healthy, happy and productive lives. "No one wants to live an extra 10 years if they have to spend them in a nursing home," said the head of the working group, Professor Linda Partridge, of University College London. "But that is not what is happening at present. People are living longer. At the same time, they also are living healthier, more productive lives."
This point is backed by a surprising body of statistics, she added. For example, it is known that the people of Britain are getting older and older, a trend which suggests a far higher proportion of the general population should now be living in old people's homes today than in the past. "But this is not the case," added Partridge. "The proportion is just the same as it was several decades ago." In other words, although there are more 80-year-olds today, the percentage affected by disability – requiring them to live in homes – is far lower than it was last century.
In fact, this improvement in disability has been surprisingly emphatic, according to gerontologist Professor Kay-Tee Khaw of Cambridge University, a member of the working group. "If you compare national surveys carried out between 1970 and 1990, you see the number of 85-year-olds who are disabled halved between 1971 and 1990."
In fact, medical interventions and lifestyle changes have both played crucial roles in bringing healthy old age to so many. Drugs that counter high blood pressure and cardiac complaints have produced startling reductions in deaths from heart disease, for example. Since the 1990s cardiac mortalities have dropped by 40% as a result.
At the same time, lifestyle changes are also making an impact: those who stop drinking excessively or smoking or who take exercise and eat lots of fruit and vegetables not only live longer but have less chance of suffering physical or mental disability in later life, added Khaw. "The association is clear."
This connection between factors such as diet and loss of mental function may seem unlikely but it is real, added Tallis. "Alzheimer's has a speedier, more pronounced progress on those who also suffer from cerebral vascular problems - and such conditions are associated with unhealthy lifestyles."
The result is emphatic, said Partridge. "Today's 60-year-olds have the lifestyles that 40-year-olds had a century ago. More importantly, we are now shaping up to a future in which 80-year-olds will live as 60-year-olds do today."
We emphasise this in our book so it is great to see up to date research making the same points.