Growing up about growing old

Image caption Many elderly people are happy and healthy

The increasing number of elderly people in society tends to be seen as a problem.

But in this week's Scrubbing Up column, old age psychiatrist Dr Julian Hughes argues we should actually see the over-60s as a bonus.

The prospect of getting old has never seemed alluring. And even if this is changing with the important advocacy of people like Dame Joan Bakewell, the ageing population is still seen as a problem.

The problem of ageing for the individual appears as anything from wrinkles to memory problems; whilst the problem for ageing societies is seen as economic.

Increasingly, however, evidence is emerging that ageing is less of a problem than people, often younger, think it might be.

For a start, even if age does bring aches, it also seems - according to studies all over the world - to bring happiness.

A large study by Newcastle University, for instance, has shown that 85-year-olds, despite having significant levels of disease and impairment, are very positive about their health and are able to function well.

Even at the level of the economy, pointing the finger at older people turns out to be unfair.

The rest of society has to spend money on its older people, for sure, but the traffic is two-way, especially if (what are called) intergenerational transfers are measured broadly.

Putting it bluntly, older people are giving more to their offspring by and large than the other way around.

The big (older) society

If we look at volunteering, we discover that the big society is already here, and has been for years. But it is largely dominated by older people.

From the Women's Royal Voluntary Service, working in our hospitals and communities, to the volunteers working at National Trust properties or the voluntary work of faith-based charities, volunteers are more likely to be naturally silver.

This is active citizenship, but also active ageing.

Remaining active, of course, is good for you, both mentally and physically.

But, some will say, albeit we can paint an optimistic picture, isn't it the case that the diseases of old age will catch up with us eventually? Well, they might.

It is certainly true that living longer brings with it an increasing risk of age-associated conditions, from arthritis to stroke disease. However, we have to remember that longevity is a success.

Who wishes to live a life that is brutal and short? And if most people at 85 are enjoying their lives, why would we wish not to enjoy this possibility too?

After all, one aspiration of gerontology, the science of ageing, is that the morbidity curve can be squared off.

In other words, rather than the ends of our lives involving an inevitably slow decline, instead, after a relatively healthy old age, we'll die quickly.

Indeed, given the link between so many diseases and ageing, it makes sense to argue (somewhat radically) that if we could understand ageing itself (as we are increasingly doing), we might then have a better chance with cancer, heart disease, dementia, and so on.

The real challenge, however, is to do with making sense of our lives. If we're going to live longer, which we are, what's it for? Biomedical science and technology will help us to age.

The purpose of ageing, however, what gives life meaning, is a matter for the arts, social sciences and humanities.