The increase in our lifespans will provoke a revolutionby Bronwen Maddox / December 10, 2015 / Leave a comment
Read the rest of Prospect‘s big ideas of 2016 here
A third of babies born now in Britain will live to be 100. The average life span for baby girls born in 2013 will be 94 years, according to the Office for National Statistics. For baby boys, just under 91. By 2062, the life expectancy of women in the UK (apart from in Scotland) will be 100 years, if expressed on the “cohort” basis, which takes account of continuing improvements in health and other things that help longevity expected during those lifetimes.
This is an astounding change. In 1900, life expectancy at birth was about 45 years; in the middle of the 20th century, only about 20 years more. The past half century has brought an increase of about 10 years in men’s lifespans, and about 8 for women. There isn’t a single reason why; better attention to health and diet, better medicine for late-in-life illnesses, and the demise of smoking all play a part. For that reason, this astonishing achievement of the human race—and it is an achievement—is too little remarked upon.
But it will provoke a revolution in society, and we’re only just seeing the start of it.
Living longer will test many of these to breaking point. One large epidemiological study in Liverpool found that “only” 47 per cent of centenarians had dementia; a Canadian study put the rate at 86 per cent. Of the late-in-life illnesses, it is not, compared to cancer or heart disease, particularly life-shortening.
At least on the present level of medical understanding and treatment (very limited), this has huge implications for care, for family relations, for personal finances and for tax policy. Where local authorities cannot manage, the burden will fall on family support, if it exists. Multi-generational households are becoming more common, sometimes reluctantly formed under the needs for care and the prohibitive expense of housing for younger generations (property taxes are poorly designed to encourage people to downsize later in life, and equity release schemes are clunky and expensive). More than that, we are looking at “the end of inheritance” within a generation, as people turn to their houses as well as pensions (if those remain at all) and savings to support themselves. These are the new parameters of “The Alzheimer’s economy.”
But there are many positives. Medical attention and funds are now swinging with energy to the different forms of dementia; it is highly unlikely that no advances at all will be made. And at least for a generation after the previously normal retirement age of 65, people are enjoying health and capabilities unknown before in history. They are working longer, often by choice (not just to repair emerging holes in state protection), seeing future generations grow up, and making good use of what is an achievement, an asset and often, if not always, a deep source of pleasure: the continuing extension of the human lifespan.