At 112 years old Jane Gray is believed to be Australia’s oldest person, and while that’s an impressive innings, her longevity could become more common as medicine and healthier lifestyles push life expectancy towards triple figures. Yes, you too may live to 100.
Already the number of Australian centenarians has increased by 200 per cent in the past two decades, and the number is expected to continue rising.
Mrs Gray, who last year moved to a New South Wales nursing home after living with her family, was born in 1901, the year Australia became a federated nation, had a population of 3.7 million and life expectancy for women was just 58.8 years.
Today at least a third of newborns can expect to live to 100, according to a United Nations report that describes global population ageing as a “megatrend that is transforming economies and societies around the world”.
The UN report predicts that the number of centenarians will explode from current global figures of around 300,000, to more than 3 million by 2050, making centenarians the fastest growing demographic globally.
Australian currently has 4250 centenarians (people aged 100 and older) and super centenarians (aged 110 years or older) according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and is projected to see that number surge up to 60,000 in the next 40 years.
I don’t want to live longer if I’m not going to enjoy it
Not only can we expect to live longer, we should get to enjoy greater health as we age, says Harvard University Professor of Applied Economics, David Cutler.
Professor Cutler led a study that found people are enjoying better health in their later years.
“Effectively, the period of time in which we’re in poor health is being compressed until just before the end of life. So where we used to see people who are very, very sick for the final six or seven years of their life, that’s now far less common. People are living to older ages and we are adding healthy years, not debilitated ones,” Professor Cutler said.
This improvement was the result of better health treatment when illness struck, and medical advances that prevent us becoming sick in the first place.
Mrs Gray is a good example of healthy ageing. Despite her super-centenarian status she still enjoys crafts and gossip, and describes her life as a “lucky one”.
“I married the man I love and have two beautiful children, seven grandchildren, eight great grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren,” she said.
Mrs Gray has witnessed immense change in her long life. She was already in her fifties when television came to Australia, past seventy before mobile phones were invented and in her nineties before the internet transformed contemporary life. She attributes her longevity to “clean living”, being involved in a community and making the most of each day.
The secrets of ageing
Unlocking the secrets of longevity offers us important tools to increasing our own life spans, according to Professor Robyn Richmond, from the University of NSW School of Public Health and Community Medicine.
After studying 190 centenarians for the Australian Centenarian Study, Professor Richmond found that longevity is more about personality than genes.
Professor Richmond said being optimistic, able to cope with change and loss, and well connected socially can all add candles to our birthday cakes.
“Centenarians are less likely to feel anxious or vulnerable, they are open and flexible to change and are able to get on with life when awful things happen to them,” Professor Richmond said.
“A strong social system is terribly conducive to a long life, as is spirituality, and maintaining a healthy weight.”
She said centenarians had much lower rates of depression and anxiety than the general population and had managed to escape serious illness.
The Japanese island of Okinawa has the greatest concentration of centenarians in the world, and researchers have been studying the population to find out why.
“We boil it all down to four factors: Diet, exercise, psycho-spiritual and social,” says researcher Bradley Willcox, from the Okinawa Centenarian Study.
The ageing challenge
Extended life spans creates unprecedented challenges at a time when the new government has chosen not to appoint a minister for ageing, instead adding the role to the Social Services Minister, Kevin Andrews’ portfolio.
It’s a decision that Kaye Fallick, director of the International Federation on Ageing, finds hard to understand.
“Along with many other OECD nations, our population aged 60 and over is set to nearly double between 2020 and 2050. So you would expect that our need for a Minister for Ageing is a no-brainer.
“But no. According to our new prime minister, this role is no longer important enough to merit a position in his cabinet. It is now an ‘add-on’ to other, apparently more important, ministerial roles,” Ms Fallick wrote on her website for older Australians YOURLifeChoices.
Sue Hendy, CEO of Victoria’s Council on the Ageing, said Australia has an ageist society in which age discrimination was a significant issue. With longevity set to change Australia’s social landscape the common perceptions of ageing need to be challenged.
“In practical terms, an age-friendly city adapts its structures and services to be accessible to and inclusive of older people with varying needs and capacities,” she said.
COTA will work to a blueprint from the World Health Organisation’s Global Age Friendly Cities Guide which has already been used in more than 33 cities around the world to enhance community opportunities for older people.
“To create a society where people can age well and with dignity requires community awareness and action. Only then will our political leaders take action to ensure that older people’s rights are protected and that appropriate services are put in place to meet the needs of a growing older population,” Ms Hendy said.
Michelle Hamer is a Melbourne-based journalist and author