A long life has always been considered a desirable objective for most people, and modern science, abundant food and hygienic living conditions are making it possible for ever greater parts of the population to achieve this goal.
Over the past 200 years, worldwide average life expectancy has doubled, and some experts say that human longevity has not even reached its peak yet. They are not talking about the distant future — in fact, the first person to live to 150 may already have been born.
According to the National Institute on Aging, the once leading causes of illness and death — mostly infectious and parasitic diseases — all have been dramatically reduced through vaccinations, dietary improvements, better health education and overall higher standards of living.
Obviously, conditions still vary widely from country to country, but generally people now live much longer than ever worldwide. In some places, those 85 and older already make up the fastest growing part of the populace; globally, their numbers will quadruple by mid-century. And the number of centenarians (those 100 year old or more) is projected to increase 10-fold over the same time period.
Being able to extend life, of course, is a great success. But simply adding years of sickness, frailty and decline is not a very appealing prospect. Unfortunately, the progress we are making in terms of keeping people around longer is not always matched by advances in personal health and fitness — both physically and mentally.
Today's seniors, especially in the developed world, not only could be the longest living but also the healthiest generation, based on the level of health care and health education available. But sadly, the facts don't bear this out. Dying prematurely from infectious diseases may be a thing of the past in the developed world, but those threats have been replaced by a host of diet- and lifestyle-related chronic illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Most of these are treatable and could be prevented altogether. But according to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only a miniscule percentage of the population pays enough attention and follows recommendations that can reduce the risk of developing these ailments. And yet, these recommendations are simple and widely accepted as effective, proactive health measures. They include a healthful diet, regular exercise, persistent weight management, stress reduction, sufficient sleep and avoidance of smoking, alcohol and drug abuse. To follow any (or preferably all) of these, it is never too soon or too late.
Adding years to life may be a worthwhile pursuit for its own sake — but without adding life to years by maintaining good health, it will likely be a sadly diminished outcome.