The disruptive force of COVID-19 demands that we learn lessons and think about what will change in the future. It is too early to know for sure how our lives will be affected, although what it is clear to us is the value of our health and lives.
Governments have introduced policies and individuals have changed behaviours to minimise the risk of illness, producing a dramatic decline in GDP growth as nations place health above commerce. The global consensus is that we cannot have a healthy economy without a healthy population. While our immediate concern continues to be dealing with the pandemic, it is important to look into the future.. There is another altogether new health challenge that we as individuals and society face – the importance of ageing well.
Because of extraordinary improvements in public health, science and medical technology, life expectancy has increased dramatically over the past century. In the UAE, life expectancy has increased at the rate of more than four years in each decade since the 1960s. That means each generation is living around 10-12 years longer than the previous one. A consequence is that, according to the UN, cohort life expectancy in the UAE is now more than 90 years of age.
The result of this startling increase in life expectancy is that in high-income countries the young can now expect to become the very old. Now the majority can expect to become old, with the real prospect of living into one’s 90s. The fastest growing demographic group globally are those aged over 100. It is estimated today that there are just over half a million centenarians and this figure is expected to reach more than 3 million by 2050 and nearly 9 million by 2070.
Dependent on age
With this shift comes a change in the health challenge we all face. With so many living into older years there is a sharp increase in the number of age-related diseases such as diabetes, cancer, dementia, cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases. Even COVID-19 is age-related, with variants to date all having a much greater impact on the older population.
With this increase in longevity comes a new imperative – to age well. Longer lives offer multiple opportunities to us. It offers more time that can be used to begin work later, change career in midlife, or spend more time with one’s grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren.
But longer lives also raise the prospect of ill-health, frailty and loneliness in later years. We all want to live long, we just don’t want to become old.
Given these longevity trends there is a new crucial imperative - to age well. That isn’t just about meeting the needs of people when they become old. It’s about making sure the young become the healthy future old. According to UN estimates, only around 1 in 800 people in the UAE today are over 80 - by 2060 that’s expected to be around 1 in 16. However, those future 80 year-olds are in their forties today.
Every step has to be taken to ensure that they become the healthiest, most active, and most engaged future-old. How we age isn’t fixed but is influenced by both behaviours and our environment.
Achieving healthy longevity requires a shift in our health system away from a focus on intervening when ill to trying to keep people well. Just as COVID-19 has shown how vaccination is more effective than treatment so the same holds for age related illnesses. Improving how we age is about doing things we already know make a difference – what we eat, how we sleep, how much we exercise – as well as about new treatments and new drugs that will arise from the fundamental new discoveries happening in understanding the biology of ageing.
One thing for sure is that this search for good health will be something that increasingly dominates the economy. In a recent work, I calculated that for the US an improvement in how we age that improved health and added one more year of life expectancy was worth in total $37 trillion.
But that takes us right back to COVID-19 and how important our health is. If we are prepared to lower GDP to save lives, expect a multi-trillion dollar economy emerging as the world ages as life expectancy increases, and ageing well becomes the main health challenge.