Opinion: more and more of us are living well into old age thanks to antibiotics, sanitation, balanced diet, exercise and social ties, but is this a good thing?

By Luke O'Neill, TCD

A striking thing has happened to the human race, one of the most striking in all our history as a species: more and more of us are living well into old age. Current life expectancy in Ireland stands at 79 for a man and 83 for a woman. In 1916 the average was 53.

What’s more, a child born in Ireland today can reasonably expect to live to be 100. The statistics also show that the chances of grandparents still being alive is higher than ever. I only knew one of my grandparents and she died when I was seven, not unusual 47 years ago but very unusual for children now. Mick Jagger must have finally got some satisfaction since he has a son younger than one of his great granddaughters. 

Human history has never seen anything like this. Shakespeare wrote of the seven ages of man and the Bible had human life span at three score years and ten, but the truth is few lived that long, with many dying of infectious diseases well ahead of reaching 70. At the age of 33, Molly Bloom in Ulysses saw herself as past her prime and entering middle age. Tell that to a 33 year old woman now. And as for men, well 50 is the new 30, if all those Lycra-clad warriors of road and gym are anything to go by. 

From RTÉ Radio One's Ray D'Arcy Show, Sarah Harper, Prof of Gerontology at Oxford University on how we have to reform our thinking around old age

Antibiotics and better sanitation put paid to many infectious diseases as a cause of early death. The current top two killers are cardiovascular disease (heart attacks and strokes) and cancer, but both of these are starting to yield, because of better life styles and treatments. Studies on people living in so-called blue zones (where a large percentage of the population live beyond the average life span) have suggested life styles to promote longevity.

It’s the old stalwarts of a balanced diet (and no over-eating), plenty of exercise and strong social ties. Combine that with better medicines to treat diseases and we are approaching a recipe to live long and prosper. Even if we can’t follow the recipe, new medicines mean that you may well be able to have your cake and eat it. If living the high life means greater risk of heart disease and cancer then maybe your doctor can fix you. This might be the modern equivalent of Catholicism - a life time of sin which can be forgiven later.

At the age of 33, Molly Bloom in Ulysses saw herself as past her prime and entering middle age. Tell that to a 33 year old woman now

What all this means for society is only now being seriously considered. What is clear is that major changes will happen. The Japanese are turning playgrounds into fitness areas for the elderly. Holiday offers and educational options for over seventies abound as the grey pound is fought over with newer and better options.

And old options are repackaged. The Beatles' "White Album" is 50 years old and those who bought it when it originally came out can now buy it again, having bought it at least four times before as new technologies came along (original album, cassette tape, CD, Spotify). The latest incarnation has seven separate items (how many times can "Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?" be remastered?), demos, out-takes and the like. Classic consumerism is ideal for the elderly: buying something you don’t really need over and over again. No doubt people alive in 2050 will buy it again and the format will be you playing your favourite Beatle, recording the album on a Star Trek-like holodeck when you are, er, 164.

But do you want to live to be 164? It may well be possible, especially if your clapped out organs can be replaced with new ones grown in the lab. This isn’t as far-fetched as it seems - scientists recently grew a human heart in a dish. And another study has suggested that there may in fact be no limit to human life span based on statistical extrapolation. The only thing that might kill you then is boredom. There are only so many times you can visit Machu Picchu, including being lifted up there by a drone. 

One good thing about becoming old is science has shown that you definitely become wiser (as measured by ability to see someone else’s point of view more clearly and search for compromise) and happier. Increasing happiness with old age may surprise some people. Again its statistical - it’s on average. Several studies have shown that happiness has a peak in your early twenties (footloose, fancy free) then falls steadily, bottoming out in your early fifties (teenage kids, life’s trials, your face in the mirror) and then rising steadily into old age (Botox, no use in worrying, acceptance).

To paraphrase Samuel Beckett: "what do we do, now that we’re happy?’"Of course you might argue that old people should leave the stage for subsequent generations but at least for the moment it turns out they need our wisdom - and our money. The overall message? Eat drink, be merry and buy "The White Album" again, for tomorrow we live!

Professor Luke O'Neill is professor of biochemistry in the School of Biochemistry and Immunology at TCD. His new book Humanology: A Scientists's Guide To Our Amazing Existence is out now on Gill Books. He will be taking part in RTÉ One's Science Week Growing Up Live special tonight (Thursday)


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ