The latitude of longevity

We are continuing to see an increase in life expectancy across Europe. For example, life expectancy at age 65 has risen by 1.6 years for women and 1.9 years for men in EU member states over the 10 years from 2002 and 2012, according to the latest figures from Eurostats.

The largest rise in life expectancy is for women in Estonia which has improved by 2.9 years. The smallest rise is 0.7 year improvement in life expectancy for women in Iceland and also the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Interestingly, in the UK, it is men aged 65 who have seen an increase in average life expectancy, of 2.3 years, whereas UK women aged 65 have seen an increase of only 1.8 years over the same period. The chart below compares the increases in life expectancy for men and women across the EU.

Much of this increase is explained by the improvements being made in healthcare provision and the fact that people now have relatively healthier lifestyles and better living conditions. However, to understand the consequences of this rising life-expectancy trend we need to better understand the process of ageing.

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The Longevity Science Panel recently published a paper which included interviews with eight of the most eminent authorities on the biology of ageing, to try to better understand the process of ageing and potential ways to delay it.

The paper, entitled: “What is ageing? Can we delay it?”, confirmed that the process of ageing is very complex, involving many interacting chains of biochemical events in the body. The scientists also agreed that we are still far away from a single ‘magic’ pill that could help to delay ageing substantially.

Instead, what has emerged is that increasing the time a person spends in relative good health, called healthspan, actually helps to extend people’s lifespan. So minimising the number of years people are in misery in their later years because of ill health or disability by channelling resources and effort into making people healthier, would enable us to live longer, as a secondary benefit.

The Longevity Science Panel concluded that exercise and a healthy diet are the most practical ways to delay ageing. A nutritious and well-balanced diet that prevents obesity and promotes health would help a population to live longer. All this sounds simple, but adherence to a healthy lifestyle is a huge challenge.

For example in 1979, 2,500 men were asked to follow five simple rules – eat well, work out, drink less, keep their weight down and never smoke. Nearly four decades later, just 25 now-pensioners, representing a mere 1 per cent of the original group, managed to stick to the plan.

The outlook by the panel is that UK life expectancy will continue to rise in the next decade, but not as fast as in previous decades. However, the continued rise in life expectancy will result in a greater number of older people in the UK population. According to the Office for National Statistics Principal Projection, between 2015 and 2035 the number of people aged 60 or above will increase from 15.1 to 21.4 million – an increase of 6.3m. This will be an overall 42 per cent increase in people aged 60 or over and a 480 per cent increase in those aged over 100.