Live longer – and better!


When I saw this cartoon it depressed me.

doctor tells old man this is longevity

“These are them?” All this effort to stay young – and all it gets us is more years of being old?

Wait a minute. Let’s refill that half-glass of water, abandoning such pessimistic measurement of its emptiness. Readers of this column will know how fond My New Old Self is of citing studies (whose findings I like). Here’s a half-full glass version: I found a scientific study that counters the gloomy view of longevity promoted in that cartoon.

The study, conducted at Harvard University, shows that the increase in life expectancy in the past 20 years has been coupled with an even greater increase in years of life that are free of disability. This means that as lifespans increase, quality of life also improves.

The researchers say this is largely due to two factors: better cardio-vascular health and fewer vision problems. More older people are getting improved medical care to prevent heart attacks, and it is now easier and cheaper to have cataracts surgically removed from ageing eyes.

As with that half-glass of water, it is the measuring that is key. This study aimed to create a unique measurement, not only of life expectancy but also of how many of those extra years of life may be unburdened by ill health or disability.

“The study found that in 1992, the life expectancy of the average 65-year-old was 17.5 years, 8.9 of which were free from disability. By 2008, total life expectancy has risen to 18.8 years. In addition to the overall increase, the number of disability-free years increased, from 8.9 to 10.7, while the number of disabled years fell, from 8.6 to 8.1.”

Understanding the Improvement in Disability Free Life Expectancy In the U.S. Elderly Population, National Bureau of Economic Research

The findings of this study challenge an old idea about old age: that it is a time of limited options due to medical problems and disabilities. In short, there can be – and often is – longevity without decrepitude.

“It used to be that when you turn 70, your occupation became managing your health. Now you can increasingly just live your life. This suggests, for the typical person, there really is an act beyond work. So this is good news for the vast bulk of people who can now look forward to healthier, disability free life, but it’s also good news for medical care because it demonstrates the value of medical spending.”

– Professor David Cutler, on the study’s research team

Cutler admits that there are still many health concerns associated with ageing, e.g. Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, Parkinson’s disease and various neuro-degenerative disorders, as well as chronic conditions like diabetes. The Harvard group aims to conduct further research to find out whether all socio-economic groups and geographic regions are similarly experiencing more disability-free ageing.


graph of remaining life expectancy

Remaining life expectancy graph, wikipedia commons

Before closing I would like to return to that cartoon that initially got me depressed, then led to my epiphany about healthy ageing. I need to explain why I gave no details about that cartoon of the old guy at the doctor. For as soon as I saw it I immediately endeavoured to find the identity of its creator, so as to give due credit.

My skills in searching the World Wide Web are limited, but I recently discovered a trick that I thought would help me find the cartoonist. You right-click on the mystery image and a little menu pops up, offering five options. Choose “Search Google for image” and in a few nanoseconds it reveals details of the photographer or artist credited for it.

That’s what’s supposed to happen. However, that is not what happened when I sought the source of my cartoon. Google did not tell me the cartoonist’s name, but simply offered me four words. These are them:

funny old people cartoons

That’s right, age-mates, this is our genre: “Funny Old People”. We have the starring roles. The butt of the jokes is us.

So I’m wondering why it was different when I rephrased my Google search of “Funny _____ People”. When I filled in the blank with “black” or “gay” or “disabled” Google didn’t deadpan it and offer cartoons making fun of those people.

On the contrary, it was like Google had just finished a course on Sensitivity Training for Politically Correctness. When I entered “black” instead of “old” I was directed to “9 Cartoons You Didn’t Realize Were Racist & Totally Inappropriate For Kids”. Typing in “gay” instead of “old” took me to a site called “Proud, gay and sometimes funny”. And searching for “funny disabled people” took me to “I Hate People Who Make Fun of Disabled Adults and Kids”.

What conclusions can one draw from this? Perhaps it’s time to haul out my water-glass measurer to assess those algorithms that guide our internet searches. The half-full glass assessment could relate to the fact that the tech experts who create those algorithms tend to be young. This may show that youth today are less racist, homophobic and prejudiced about disability.

The half-empty glass perspective shows, however, that there is still a lot of work to be done in combating ageism. No worries: every year there are more people who start to get it about getting older – as they join the ever increasing ranks of the world’s ageing population.


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