Bob Dylan is suddenly an octogenarian. His seminal work, written some fifty years ago, ‘For the times they are a changing’, was seditious, in defiance of the old ways and providing a compass to the young. Now he wears the laurel wreath in literature. Full circle. Paul McCartney is not far behind. When he sang ‘When I’m 64’, the idea of old age was remote and incomprehensible to our generation, the forever young. Now we are in our 70’s, how does it feel?
In the previous era, people expected to die soon after retirement. But now the elderly population in developed countries has increased faster than the general population. Australia has 6000 people aged 100 or more. In the last 20 years, this centenarian population has risen by 270%, compared with a 30% increase in the general population.
The greater chance of a longer life seems like a bonus, but these figures also camouflage a catastrophe because many elders are not in excellent health. A lot feel miserable, in pain or depression. Modern medicine has powerful tools for keeping people alive but not necessarily in happy health.
In a recently published book, ‘The Miracle Pill’, author Peter Walker found that almost half of middle-aged English people do not walk continuously for ten minutes or more in an average month. He writes, ‘How did we get there? Activity became exercise. What for centuries was universal and everyday has become the fetished pursuit of a minority, whether the superhuman feats of athletes or a chore slotted into busy schedules. As a recipe for healthy ageing, that paints a grim scenario’. Walker’s simple prescription for continued health is activity and movement.
At a stage performance, Toni Childs, who might be around 70, mentioned onstage that her ambition is to reach 145 years of age. She asked the audience for a show of hands who felt the same. A surprising number went up, reflecting that achieving a healthy ripe old age is very much on the agenda.
How long is it possible to live? Some experts predict that with evolving science, 150 may be possible. ‘Sapiens’ author Noah Yuval Harari reports scholars saying that by 2050 (barring accidents), some humans will become ‘amortal’, that their lives could be extended indefinitely.
Of those who reach the century, the chances of becoming 110 are one in a thousand. There are in the world today 300-400 super-centenarians. In the top 50, forty-seven are women, and three are men.
Some Living Legends
Let’s look at some of these people to see who can answer the question they all get asked, ‘What is the secret to a long and healthy life?’
Aged over 111 years, Dexter Kruger has become the oldest living person in Australia. He supplanted Christine Cock, who died at 114 years and 148 days. In a search for answers, he was interviewed at his current home, the Pinaroo retirement village, for the ‘New Daily’ by Phoebe Hosier.
Dexter was a grazier and a vet, staying on his farm and riding his horse till his mid-nineties. In reply to the usual questions about his secret to longevity, he claimed genetics, but he also talked about diet. ‘People eat too much,’ he said. ‘They eat themselves into the grave. I lived close to nature and ate mostly what I grew in the garden or off the farm’.
Now he sits in the sun to soak up vitamin D, has a regular exercise routine, and writes his autobiography. ‘I didn’t have wheels but four legs,’ referring to his life on the farm. An intact sense of humour must bode well. The manager at Pinaroo commented on his strength of character and mental attitude. ‘He’s one of the sharpest residents here. His memory is amazing, and his cognitive function is unbelievable.’ His ambition? To become Australia’s oldest person- ever. He told the journalist, ‘I’d like to live until it’s too difficult to live.’
Another one is Australia’s oldest working artist. Guy Warren recently turned 100. The striking thing about Warren is his state of health. He was profiled by journalist John McDonald in an article, ‘Song for Guy.’ (SMH 10 Apr 2021) Far from being an epitaph, this portrayal is about an ongoing human life. He looks comfortable in his home studio in the cover photo, sitting straight-backed in a paint-splattered apron, arms stretched behind his head in an open-hearted gesture. His expression is bemused and alive. Warren is the portrait subject for this year’s winner in the Archibald Prize. By strange coincidence, both he and the prize are 100 years old.
In the article, McDonald remarked on Warren’s ‘affability,’ but he said he is sick of being asked the secret to longevity. ‘Good luck, good genes and a whisky every night’. What else is there that allows this artist to live a fulfilling everyday life? What can younger mortals learn from the older artist? He said, ‘I still feel like I did when I was 55 or even 35- there’s no difference.’ It reflects his attitude, a mental uncoupling between chronological and biological age, the tyranny of time against a sense of self. It’s worth a note that surgical intervention saved his prostate and his heart at different times.
Guy Warren says, ‘Retirement is an absurdity. I’ve never understood the idea. Ask me again in ten years.’ My older sister Kathy Golski is also a Sydney artist, and so I asked her about this. She said, ‘Artists never retire. We can’t afford to’. Dr Hippocrates of Kos said more than two thousand years ago, ‘life is short and the art long.’ Maybe artists can see further than ordinary earthlings.
What can we glean from the Wisdom of the Ancients – about their genetics, activity, energy, nutrition, social life, attitude, luck and how they used health services?
These elders all claim good genetics, so it seems fateful how we choose our parents. How unfair that an individual’s chance at longevity may not be a level playing field. But new evidence is emerging that conscious lifestyle modifications can have a positive influence. Contemporary eating practices, ‘too much and too often’ as mentioned by Dexter, correlate with degenerative inflammatory disease. We now know that mature onset diabetes can be prevented or even cured by caloric restriction. In this setting, the concept of voluntary intermittent fasting makes sense but new tricks can be a hard ask for old dogs. A moderate start might be an early evening meal, then deliberately refrain from snacking until breakfast the next day. We can pick up better habits a bit at a time. Of course, there are no guarantees. Comedian Fran Liebervich said in an interview, ‘While your bad habits may kill you, your good habits still may not save you.’
Dr. David Miller
Is a retired GP who writes on health and travel