So often these days I hear, “Getting old is not for sissies”. Personally, I prefer the competing concept, “Growing old is a privilege denied to many”. But there’s no doubt that there are many perspectives on the subject. We talk about how 50 is the new 40 and 60 is the new 50, and then we’re surprised and some of us not too happy that 80 isn’t quite the new 70. Or that there is an end date for us all, regardless of our wealth or fitness level. My wish is for more people to relax and adopt the second philosophy as they get old(er) – Growing old is a privilege denied to many. And the fact that you’re just feeling these aches and pains now means that you’ve led a relatively pain-free life for a long time, another privilege denied many.
The mere fact that we are able to dwell on our attitude about getting older – and, gasp, eventually dying – is because such vast numbers of people are living through this phase of life for the first time in history. Not only are many of us living far longer, but despite complaints about the aches, pains, and limitations of aging (the getting-old-is-not-for-sissies philosophy), thanks to modern medical advances, those of us blessed to live full lives have far better treatments for aches and pains than used to be the case.
How many of your parents or grandparents (or great grandparents, depending on your age) were offered hip, knee, or shoulder replacements to alleviate severe joint pain? None. It didn’t become common until the early 1990s. Now, however, notwithstanding long waits for the surgery in many parts of Canada at the moment, the magic of joint replacement allows significant numbers of senior citizens have far better quality of life than would otherwise have been possible. Including me!
How many of your parents or (great) grandparents were able to have minimally-disruptive cataract surgery so that their cloudy vision could be corrected? Cataract surgery has been around in one form or another for a long time, but the procedures available now allow people’s vision to be improved with very speedy and safe operations. It’s the rare person over the age of 70 who hasn’t had cataract surgery!
What about bypass surgery for people at risk of heart attack due to blockages? These weren’t around yet when my Dad died of a heart attack in 1965. So many people live far longer because of these now-straightforward procedures.
And on it goes.
Did you know that it is estimated that around 100 million people died of the Spanish Flu in the 1918 global pandemic, as opposed to the horrifying enough 3 million people who have died to date from the 2020-21 coronavirus?
Did you know that in the 100 years between those two devastating pandemics the average human life span around the world has doubled? For the first time in history? In 1918, babies born in the UK could expect to live into their 40s. This isn’t too different from the average lifespan of 30-35 that has been recorded throughout history. For millennia. Babies born in the UK today, on the other hand, have an average expected life span of more than 80. In a developing country like India the average life span has risen less than 30 in 1918 to nearly 70. This extraordinary advance is despite all the foolish things we humans do to kill ourselves, like start wars, smoke, abuse drugs, and shoot each other!
So there are way more people experiencing the joys – and challenges – of growing old than has ever been the case before. As you can see from this graph which records changes in average life expectancy through to 2015, it’s a privilege granted to more people all the time.
Of course, we have modern medicine to thank for this quantum leap in average life expectancy. Heartbreaking numbers of children used to die before the age of 5, dying of childhood diseases that we eventually were able to wipe out or control by improved sanitation and vaccinations. Smallpox, diphtheria, typhoid, measles, you name it. And of course once we had antibiotics, all sorts of infections could be managed that used to be a death sentence. Penicillin was only discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928 and not widely used until the mid to late 1940s . As well, we only came to realize the dangers of drinking unpasteurized milk at the end of the 19th century. So, you see, we are living in uncharted territory, having so many of us old folks around. Old folks who don’t want to think of themselves as old!
In case this topic depresses you, which is not my intention in the slightest, here’s some humour to lighten the mood.
The choice of how you approach getting old is up to you! 🙂
For further information: NYT Magazine Global Life Span