90+ Australia’s fastest growing age group

By Julian Swallow 9 December 2010
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While genetics and good health are important for successful ageing, so too are social relationships.

THE QUEST FOR ETERNAL life has been an ongoing preoccupation throughout human history, prompting a surfeit of outlandish remedies, including injecting the blood of young boys, and infusing the body with mashed up dog testicles.

But with Australians over the age of 90 now the fastest growing group in the population, our ability to keep the Grim Reaper at bay for longer is fast becoming a reality.

A projected 50,000 Australians are expected to live to 100 by mid-century, compared with the current 3000 centenarians today. This has prompted an increasing focus on what constitutes “successful ageing” and how this will allow the country to manage its rapidly greying population. 

To date, research on ageing has largely focused on the central part played by good genetics and protective measures such as exercise and a healthy diet. But presenters at Living to 100: The Science and the Art, a recent conference at the University of New South Wales, discussed the increasingly recognised role of social interactions.

Active ageing

Professor Henry Brodaty, an ageing and mental health specialist from the University of New South Wales, who presented at the conference, says “active ageing equals positive ageing,” and points to studies that suggest the ability to adapt positively to changing circumstances leads to longevity. A stable marriage and education are also among seven protective factors that promote successful ageing – alongside typical criteria such as maintaining a healthy weight, refraining from smoking, exercising and avoiding excessive consumption of alcohol.

Henry says this shows the concept of successful ageing should be considered more broadly. “To have greater relevance to older people, successful ageing should be viewed as multidimensional,” he says.

Joyce Belfield, 91, of Wahroonga in Sydney’s north, agrees that while keeping fit has been key to how she has remained healthy and active, social factors such as solid relationships and a positive personality have been as important.

“Keeping fit is vitally important. We (she and husband George) walk a lot – about an hour each day – and I’ve always eaten plainly, never drank, never smoked,” she says. “But one of the most important things is to have security – income, health, family, home – that leads to peace of mind.”

Demographer Roger Patulny from the University of New South Wales agrees. “Successful ageing involves access to a minimum of resources to fit a certain lifestyle – housing, minimum retirement income – ageing actively…and maintaining good levels of social contact,” says Roger.

Avoiding isolation

With average life expectancy in developed countries increasing by 2.5 years each decade, women who turn 50 next year can expect to live until Joyce’s age, while men will generally live a few years less. Roger says a downside of people living longer will be a greater incidence of social isolation among the elderly, particularly men.

“My research suggests that there is a real drop off in social contact after retirement for men, so they will be spending more and more years being isolated,” Roger told Australian Geographic.

Roger points to a number of policies and programs he believes can alleviate this isolation, such as encouraging younger people to volunteer in roles assisting older Australians, which promotes inter-age mixing, as well as developing men’s groups to aid their continuing social engagement. He also suggests more resources are required to combat dementia, which he says will become more common.  

Reflecting on her life, Joyce says one of the most important lessons for successful ageing is to take pleasure in what you’ve achieved. “It’s important to take satisfaction from what you’ve done with your life, and with having enough,” she says. “You don’t have to try and climb every mountain.”

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