We’re not just living longer, we’re healthier longer too.
That’s the conclusion that researchers at the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics came to in a report published this week.
Their report, called, “Living longer: is age 70 the new age 65?”, determined that in terms of overall health, the average 70-year-old is now comparable to a 65-year-old in 1981.
The average 70-year-old man in 2017 could also expect to live another 15 years, and the average 70-year-old woman, 17 years.
This is the same number of remaining years that a 65-year-old man could look forward to in 1997, and a woman in 1981.
The study was “reassuring,” said Dr. Ken Madden, head of geriatric medicine at Vancouver General Hospital. “Most people have a period of poor health at the end of their lives. And you worry we’re just extending that part.”
“It is kind of reassuring that even though lives have gotten longer, that period of poor health at the end has stayed the same. So you actually got some additional healthy years as well.”
In a recent report, Statistics Canada came to a similar conclusion as its U.K. counterpart: Canadians have more healthy years of life. They examined “health-adjusted life expectancy,” defined as how long someone is expected to live in good health, taking into account things like mobility, cognition and pain.
Using that measure, male healthy life expectancy rose from 65 to 69 years between 1994-95 and 2015. Female healthy life expectancy at birth rose from 67.8 to 70.5 years. The percentage of lifespan after age 20 spent in good health stayed at 85 per cent for men and 81 per cent for women.
“Seventy-five is the new 65,” said Dr. Doug Manuel, a senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and a distinguished professor at the University of Ottawa.
He attributes much of the gain in healthy years of life to what he calls the “big four” of basic preventative care: smoking, alcohol, food and exercise.
Madden believes that improved treatments for things like diabetes and cardiovascular conditions have also contributed immensely.
The gains aren’t even, Manuel said, with life expectancy gaps starting to appear between urban and rural or northern areas, people of higher and lower socioeconomic status, and Indigenous populations compared to other Canadians.
They might not continue forever either, he said, pointing to the U.S., which has seen recent declines in life expectancy, partly due to the ongoing opioid crisis.
Canada’s life expectancy has stalled recently too, for the same reason.
But as Canadians live healthier for longer, what does that mean for retirement and things like the Canada Pension Plan, which you can start withdrawing from at 65?
“If we’re living longer and are healthier five years longer, maybe we need to re-evaluate. Maybe we don’t have to retire at 65,” Madden said.
He has conversations with patients who tell him they really like their job, but feel a societal pressure to retire at 65, he said.
“Well, if you feel fine and you like your job, you shouldn’t feel the need to retire.”
He regards more healthy years of life as beneficial both for individuals and for society. “They always talk about our aging population as always this negative thing,” Madden said.
“What this shows is that you’re going to have wise people that are independent, living lives that they want to live. That’s a good thing.”
Both Madden and Manuel recommend regular exercise, a healthy diet, and a healthy social life as good ways to improve your chances of joining the ranks of the old-but-healthy, though Madden notes it helps to have a healthy bank account and good genes, too.
The goal is to “add more life to years than years to life,” Manuel said, meaning minimizing the amount of time you spend in poor health at the end of your life.
“I think that’s what we all hope for: we’re going to be playing tennis and drop dead at 80 years old or something.”