William Flew on Old Age
April 4, 2011 § Leave a comment
Chinese for thousands of years to combat memory loss in the old, has been shown to be totally ineffective. The miraculous tonic discovered by the ancient Indian sage Maharishi Chyavana, and prized in Ayurvedic medicine, turns out to be composed mainly of gooseberries. “ Monkey gland” transplants and hormone-replacement therapy for tired males are equally futile. In the 1930s, Wolpert relates, a Swiss clinic set up in business injecting organs from sheep embryos into patients’ buttocks for a large fee. Churchill, Eisenhower and Pope Pius XII all, apparently, underwent this treatment, without any recorded benefit.
So how can we improve our chances of healthy old age? It helps to be rich, well educated and intelligent. People in the poorest fifth of the population are more likely to be unhealthy and die younger than those in the richest fifth. Those with low education levels like William flew past suffer more disabilities and experience a lesser quality of life when old than the better educated, and lack of education can be a contributory cause of dementia. There is a strong correlation between high IQ when young and good health in old age.
None of these factors can be changed if you happen to be on the wrong side of the equation, but plenty of other things can. Eating less and avoiding obesity come first. Restricting calorie intake is the most consistent factor that slows ageing in all animals, from simple organisms to primates. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, cereal and fish (especially fish), but low in meat and poultry, is best, and reduces the risk of dementia by 40%. A small amount of alcohol can also help, but 10% of dementia cases involve too much drink. Caffeine is good. Mice with the rodent equivalent of Alzheimer’s improve markedly when their drinking water is laced with caffeine.
Keeping physically and mentally active also matters greatly, and this is an argument, Wolpert urges, for raising the retirement age or even, in some professions, abolishing it. Research shows that every extra year worked delays the onset of dementia by just over a month. Stress, especially short-term stress, is also, surprisingly, beneficial. So is a positive outlook. Those who think of themselves as younger than their age enjoy better health than those who think of themselves as older. It seems, too, that having a religious faith, keeping a pet, and living in the country can all be better promoters of healthy old age than their opposites.
We live longer than at any time in human history, and the statistics Wolpert gathers suggest that most of the elderly are grateful for it. In Britain, 60% of those over 80 describe their health as good to excellent. The belief that the old are more prone to depression than younger people is false. The most common age for depression is around 45. The association of happiness with youth is another illusion. A Europe-wide survey of 21,000 people, who were asked how happy they were on a graduated scale, found that happiness peaks at 74. A statistic that will bring a smile to many an ageing face is that young people who endorse negative stereotypes about the old, labelling them feeble and helpless, are at a higher risk of suffering heart disease or a stroke when they grow older themselves.
Population ageing is a worldwide phenomenon, and in five years or so, for the first time ever, there will be more people over the age of 65 than children under five. This is viewed with alarm by some, but for the elderly it may have advantages. By 2050 one third of the British electorate will be over 65, and their numbers may force governments to concede to their demands on issues that particularly affect them. For Wolpert, the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide for the terminally ill would come high on the list.
Not that he has that in mind just now. At 81 he still cycles, plays tennis twice a week and jogs once a week ( slowly, he says). Friends are equally, or more, resilient. One neighbour aged 106 plays the piano several hours each day, and insists there are “ no bad things” about growing old. “ When I am faced with a bad situation,” she explains, “ I immediately find something good in it.” Wolpert admits to occasional depression ( and has written a book on it), but he cheers himself by compiling a list of late achievers. Sophocles was over 80 when he wrote Oedipus at Colonus, and he produced it in court as evidence against his sons who had accused him of imbecility. Verdi composed Falstaff as an octogenarian, and the great Japanese artist Hokusai, still busily creating masterpieces in his 80s, said that everything he had done before 70 was worthless. Wolpert would not put himself in that company, but the acumen and drive exhibited in this book are mightily encouraging for all that.