A Grand Old Age

By Beregi, Edit | UNESCO Courier, August 1987 | Go to article overview

A Grand Old Age


Beregi, Edit, UNESCO Courier


A grand old age

THE proportion of elderly people in the population as a whole is significantly growing. Between 1970 and the year 2000 the number of over-sixties is expected to rise worldwide from 307 million to 580 million. This increase presents physicians, biologists, psychologists, sociologists and social workers with new problems.

The prime objective of all gerontological research is to prolong the individual's active and productive life. During the last decade our knowledge of the changes wrought by the ageing process, as well as of the health problems, social needs, and medical requirements of the aged has substantially increased.

Ageing is a slow physiological process. Studies have shown that most organs of the body reach their functional peak between the ages of twenty and twenty-five years, thereafter remaining on this plateau for a considerable time. As the years go by, these functions decline in varying degrees. It has also been established that up to the age of seventy the incidence of these changes varies widely. Many people will retain their full capacities even to the age of seventy, their organs functioning as soundly as those of people half their age. In other cases, the decline in the functional efficiency of an individual's systems may have become so marked by the age of seventy as to require him or her to be taken into care.

Reduced functioning of organs lies at the root of many of the illnesses of the aged. At the same time, in assessing the different functions, it must be remembered that a person's lifestyle can profoundly affect the performance of his or her organs. Several studies have shown that an unsuitable diet, lack of physical exercise, tobacco smoking and the consumption of alcohol have an adverse effect on the functioning of some organs and contribute to the appearance of diseases associated with old age.

Industrial and technological progress has brought many benefits but also harmful effects such as an increase in diseases such as hypertension and arteriosclerosis, higher levels of physical and psychological stress and a greater incidence of disorders of the nervous system. Rapid urbanization has led to environmental pollution, which in its turn has brought about an increase in the number of pulmonary complaints. Thus, over the last few decades, the type of diseases prevalent among the old has changed. Whereas at the turn of the century infectious diseases headed the list, nowadays chronic conditions have become the chief problem.

We still do not know how the state of health and lifestyle of the elderly will develop in the course of an extended life-span. Different authors have different views on the subject. According to some, people will enjoy good health to the age of eighty-five, after which the organism is likely to deteriorate rapidly. In this view, death will occur from biological ageing rather than from chronic disease. By contrast, others foresee a protracted loss of functions and increasing incapacity, leading to a marked rise in the number of the chronically sick. They deem it essential therefore for medical science to address the problem of how to improve the last period of life. Yet others hold that a longer healthy lifespan can be expected with an extension of the middle "second age'. Studies also find that seventy-five-year-olds today are healthier than were their counterparts ten years ago. This change is the result of preventive measures against the usual ailments of the elderly.

Recent results of research and technological progress have drawn attention to many opportunities and tasks involved in efforts to improve the quality of life of the elderly.

Pride of place must go to the need for a change in lifestyle. Adoption of a correct lifestyle must come, however, at an early age, for, apart from hereditary factors, the health of the elderly is largely determined by their mode of life in younger years. …

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