The «decade of healthy ageing» ends in 2030 and is a global challenge

By: Ernesto Ise

A few days ago, Paul McCartney celebrated his 80th birthday with a concert for sixty thousand people that lasted almost three hours. Mick Jagger is 78 years old, due to Covid he suspended his tour of Europe for a few days and restarted it with a show before 75 thousand people. Rod Stewart is 77 years old, he was one of those who sang for twenty thousand people at the British queen’s jubilee and is still on tour in the United States. Although they are «special cases» although not unique, the biological clock places them in the group of «older adults».

It is true that they are privileged “older adults” because from a young age they embraced a professional passion from which they live until now. They are also millionaires but it is true that there are –and there were– other musicians like them, who meet both conditions and yet do not go on stage to perform live. And others are already on another plane. In any case, all three are included in a report from the World Health Organization that indicates that the increase in the percentage of older adults that is estimated to be at the end of the 2020-2030 decade is surprising. According to the WHO, at the end of that period there will be 34 percent more people over 60 years of age, that is, one in six people will be that age or older. Now that age group – more than 600 million people – outnumbers children under five. And in 2050, according to the WHO, this figure will be 2.1 billion, thus surpassing the number of adolescents and young people between 15 and 24 years of age. And there will be even more than 426 million people over the age of 80.

Those numbers were resignified these days when the forty years of the establishment by the WHO of the World Aging Day were celebrated. In June 1982, in Vienna, there was a world assembly whose objective was to initiate an international program aimed at giving economic and social guarantees to the elderly. With a projection that by 2050 there will be 2.1 billion human beings over 60 years of age, there is a challenge on the horizon for governments and actors in the economic, scientific, and other worlds. In turn, there are those who study why life extension occurs where there are already more than rockers who enjoy an active «old age».

Robert Waldinger is an American psychiatrist and psychologist who came up with an answer. He directs the Harvard University Study of Adult Development, the largest of its kind: for 78 years he followed the lives of 724 men. And every two years he surveyed them, gave them medical exams, brain scans, and interviewed his relatives and friends. This study found an answer to why there is a prolongation of life whose direct consequence is the aforementioned increase in older adults. And that answer came as a surprise to many. The study is far from mentioning the ingestion of a magic medicine as in the comedy «Death is good for you.» Nor does it wield any submission to surgeries or rejuvenation treatments in premium spas.

The Harvard University Study of Adult Development showed that connection with affection is the key to a healthy old age. Affections include family, friends or those who represent their «community of affections» for the person studied. On the contrary, according to the report, loneliness destroys the possibility of a healthy old age. Loneliness is toxic and harmful. “When we looked at the people in the study at age 80, we found that those who had done better were not because they had managed to control their cholesterol at age 50, but because of the degree of healthy satisfaction in their social and affective relationships,” explained Robert Waldinger in a TED talk. «Even those who had physical pain but also affection, had not lost their humor because they had not accumulated what we call ‘emotional pain’. That is, they had tried to work and take care of affective relationships”.

The importance of this so-called “affective tissue” is something that Herrnán Fainzaig also details, who as the owner of The Senior Home, has extensive experience in caring for adults who decide –or their families do– to enter a space for go through a better old age. In addition, Fainzaig travels to see how institutions similar to his in the United States, Israel and in some European countries attend to these changes. “In other parts of the world, there are older adults who, for various reasons, choose to spend their last stage in spaces where they have a whole structure of medical and even aesthetic support, we even have a hairdresser; and also extensive visiting hours”, explains Fainzaig. “Beyond the logical physical deterioration that the passage of time could imply in some cases, we aim that the person be active and that the whole family participate in it, including spending the end of the year or Christmas parties here. We believe that it is the moment where one has the whole experience of life and it has to be enjoyable.»

For Fainzaig “it is true that there is a change in behavior and with our experience we help whoever has to choose to admit a family member to a care space, see that. Also not to take it as a ‘deposit’ because it is not. We, for example, have segments according to cognitive states, food monitoring and 24-hour medical care, kinesiology, hairdressing, all the food is made on site with a chef so that it is not only tasty, but nutritious. I decorate it, the garden….and that it be easily accessible so that the family can visit the person because affection is always important for a better quality of life».

The World Health Organization called the period 2021-2030 the “decade of healthy aging”. In one of the reports on the increase in life expectancy, the importance of environments is in line: «Although some of the variations in health in older adults are due to genetics, the factors that most influence have to do with with the physical and social environment, in particular the home, the neighborhood and the community (…); in combination with personal characteristics, it has long-term effects on aging. (…) Enabling environments, both physical and social, also make it easier for people to carry out the activities that are important to them, despite the loss of faculties”. Of course, factors such as having healthy habits, balanced diets and physical activity are included as associated links for a healthy old age.

While the alerts aim to prevent a new pandemic from paralyzing the world again, the «decade of healthy aging» is on the WHO agenda. And it is presented divided into four chapters: changing the way of thinking, feeling and acting in relation to age; capacity building of the elderly; provide integrated and primary care services that respond to the needs of older people; and provide access to long-term care for those in that group who need it. Easy task, it is not. Yes, essential.

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