If you are at all interested in ageing, your inbox quickly fills up with an awful lot of blandishments, offers and promises. There are creams, supplements, diets, hormones; you can inject yourself with Botox, or ingest cow’s colostrum, put avocado on your eyes and chocolate in your mouth. The web is bristling with rumours that an anti-ageing gene is about to be, or has recently been, discovered. There are preparations to activate your pituitary gland and pills to boost your antioxidant free radical scavenging capacity, whatever that is.
Anti-ageing is a billion-dollar business. At one end of it, pharmaceutical companies lobby to have ageing classified as a disease, so that they can legitimately market drugs to combat it. According to Greg Critser, author of Eternity Soup, a survey of the anti-ageing business, Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, has put $3.5m into a project to ‘end ageing.’ At the other end of the spectrum, there is a plethora of semi-illiterate blogs: ‘People, who start to see the signs of ageing, they start to panic and start doing wild experiments with their health. And, many scam and fake manufacturers start taking advantage of the sufferers.’ That’s someone called Derrick, singing the praises of Genf20, said to stimulate human growth hormone. For him, and millions like him in a brave new world of miracle preparations, people who are merely getting older have become ‘sufferers’.
There is, of course, lots of interesting research going on into the biology of ageing. It is greatly to be hoped that one day this science may help to prolong healthy lifespans and decrease the amount of time that people are debilitated by age-related illness. But that day is some way off and, in the meantime, none of us is getting any younger.
I’ve just got back from the SIX (Social Enterprise Exchange) summer school on ageing in Paris. People from various disciplines – business, the third sector, government, academia – had come from as far away as Australia, Japan and Canada to talk about improving the lives of ageing populations. There were lots of great ideas for design, for technology, for reducing isolation, for fostering contribution and connection, for increasing trust between the generations. Many of these ideas are being tried in small-scale pilots; very few of them have any serious money behind them.
It was hard not to feel slightly depressed, sitting on the Eurostar on the way home and tidying up my inbox. If we put a fraction of the resources into the kinds of thing being discussed in Paris that we currently pour into pretending ageing isn’t happening, in running away from it and denying that it will affect us, then we would be making life a lot easier for ourselves. We’d be much less neurotic, better adjusted, and in a position to confront ageing more confidently and successfully.
Global ageing is already with us. Unlike climate change, its future is highly predictable. Short of some vicious pandemic, we know the world’s population aged over 80 is going to increase 233% between 2008 and 2040, compared with 160% for the population aged 65 and over and 33% for the total population of all ages. We know that this will have serious implications for the way we need to organise ourselves. In policy circles, there has already been a move away from concerns about the economics of an ageing population to an emphasis on maximising the wellbeing of older people. The terms ‘active ageing’ and ‘productive ageing’ are the new buzzwords.
Most of the ideas on offer at the Six conference weren’t solutions offered to older people, but by and with them. Many were genuinely exciting. But we need a cultural shift to take notice of them, because they are crowded out at the moment by people asking, ‘Is 17 too young to start using anti-ageing cosmetics?’ or by the miserable new Sex and The City movie, in which Samantha knocks back 44 pills every morning, saying she’s tricking her body into thinking it’s younger. Carrie and Miranda, who in earlier times might have told her to get over it and have another glass of champagne, look impressed.
Bits of my body are younger than other bits. I can run further and lift heavier weights than I could in my twenties, but I have had injuries to one of my ankles and one of my knees. Ageing is personal, specific, inconsistent, and has much less to do with chronological age than we often imagine.
After a sympathetic, carefully unjudgemental and scientifically technical review of the many anti-ageing experiments under way, Greg Critser offers only two personal recommendations. One is that old people and younger people should spend more time together. The other is to try one of his five recipes for delicious sounding soups, each to be consumed with a glass of wine.
Old people often find it difficult, say, to get around cities. But so do many younger people who suffer impairments and setbacks of various kinds. Rather than demonising ageing and trying to stave it off, rather than drifting off into denial, we would be much better to accept that it’s happening, but also to recognize that it means less than we think. The key to making the lives of older people successful and happy is to regard them not as a scary species of other, but as like everybody else. By making such a big deal about ageing, we make it so much harder to do it well.