It is no secret that our demographic is changing. Our ageing population means that we not only have more people living, but more people who are living longer. We bring back Professor Malcolm Johnson to talk about the future of ageing – and find out how old people will become.
How old will people become?
There is a constant interest in how much people will extend their lifespan. There are quite a few people who would like to live a great deal longer – especially in America where there’s a trend towards cryogenics (where people have their bodies frozen so that they can be restored in the future). I am not going to do that; I am not sure that it’s a good idea. But there are some people who think that the more life we have the better. I think there is a philosophical debate to be had as to whether that is the desirable objective. But in a more practical sense, people want to know, given we are living longer now, how much longer can we live?
How does science play a part in this?
Biological sciences have moved on in recent years and they are moving the transitional age later down the line – but very cautiously. It may be that there will be new understandings in biological and human sciences that enable us to deal with the things that cause death. I don’t think anyone believes we can ultimately eliminate death – and I would certainly be of that view.
What is your prediction?
In the 1980s, I chaired an international conference and I was foolish enough to say that by 2020 there would be some people, though not many, who would live to be 120. The press was very intrigued by this, one thought what I was saying was nonsense, but we know now that the oldest person lived to 122.
What is more, the extension of life that we have seen going on for 150 years at a very consistent rate of +3 months a year is still happening.
So, how much further can we go?
We honestly don’t know. What I do know is that the expectation of most people to live into old age is very high. I sometimes tell my grandchildren, the oldest who is 13, given what I know about them – their inheritance, social class, income of their families – is that they have a 1/3 chance of living to be 100. That is just a signifier of how life has been moving, and how we can expect it to continue to move of the coming years.
As a professor of Health and Social Policy at the University of Bath since 1995, Professor Malcolm Johnson has written twelve books, including ‘Spiritual Dimensions of Ageing’, and over 160 chapters, articles and monographs. The Professor has recently attracted the public’s attention as lead experimenter on Channel 4’s ‘Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds’, where pre-school children shared their classroom with older people in a Bristol retirement home.
The professor is now supporting Guild Living to create an academic-led approach to support better ageing in later life.