Sarah Welsh: Becoming a centenarian

Sarah WelshHow long do you expect to live… 70? 80? Maybe even 90? Many consider being around in your 80s is an impressive feat. Yet, new figures suggest as many as 11 million people alive today will live to see their 100th birthday.

According to new data from the Office for National Statistics, over a quarter of today’s children aged 16 and younger, are predicted to reach the 100 landmark.

Many of us hope for a long, healthy, and fulfilling life. So how do we do it? All the usual health advice applies– eat healthily, do not drink too much alcohol, do not smoke, stay active, keep social contacts, have regular health check-ups, etc, etc.

On top of these environmental aspects, it is well regarded that genetic factors influence our ageing process. Last year the journal Science identified a group of genetic variants that can predict exceptional longevity in humans with an accuracy of 77 percent.

The estimated number of centenarians in the UK has more than tripled in the last 25 years and has more than quadrupled since 1981, when the number of people aged 100 years or more was only 2,600.

With a great deal of attention paid to our obese society and under-active children, it may come as a shock that so many of us are expected to reach 100 years old. Nonetheless, medical advances continue to amaze us. Today’s mature citizens have chronic illnesses, such as cancers and heart conditions, but are more likely than their ancestors to survive them because they are diagnosed earlier and get better treatment. This is ever-improving, with inspiring new research and raising public health awareness about the process of ageing and diseases of old age.

Lots of people strive to be a centenarian. Having a friend or relative of 100 years old amazes others. Indeed, I would love to live until 100, though there are some personal requirements that I would feel necessary in order to be ‘happy.’ As a young and naïve 22 year old, some may say this is too early to predict. However, I would willingly choose to live 80 happy years in good health, over 100 years with the final 20 cripplingly disabled, and I expect I am in the majority. There is great emphasis in healthcare, rightly so, on ‘quality of life.’

Long-life with associated ill health, consequently, raises issues of euthanasia. Assisted dying is a well-debated topic, with strong viewpoints on both sides of the argument. It is becoming an increasingly relevant matter with more and more people living so long. The possibility of legalisation, I dare say, is real.

Equally, it is important to acknowledge that not everyone wants to live for so long. We all know people who smoke, take drugs, drink and eat junk food in excess, “because they enjoy it.” These people prefer to take pleasure in what is regarded as anti-longevity, than live for 100 years. There is an argument that such habits alter quality of life, but it is all part of one’s informed lifestyle choices.

The world’s certified oldest man, Walter Breuning, passed away aged 114 at the beginning of April this year in the US. He put his longevity down to eating only two meals a day and working for as long as he could (until aged 99!). Inevitably, we will be working for more years and the pension problem is only set to increase with escalating age.

Another question old age brings, is when to have children. The most fertile period is in a woman’s 20s and 30s. Despite medical advances in fertility treatment and embryo freezing, this fertility period is not expected to change. However, with people living to 100, will lifestyle timelines change? And will this mean mothers want to have children later, something that is already becoming the trend?

An increasingly aged population raises numerous questions about services and government policies, challenging demographic experts and medics alike. However, the prediction that so many of us will live to see 100 years should be celebrated. And if you ask nicely, you are entitled to a telegram from the queen… Who wants to join the 100-club?

Sarah Welsh is a clegg scholar, Student BMJ