Good news! We’re all living longer than ever before. The average life expectancy for a child born in the UK today is about 80 years, and within 20 years, the average life expectancy at birth could be nearing 100.
We have a number of factors to thank for our increased longevity, including healthier lifestyles, public health initiatives and, of course, good old science. It goes without saying that longevity is generally a good thing, but an ageing population does present certain challenges: particularly for healthcare and medical research.
Dementia: A New Foe
Over the past 100 years, we’ve seen the leading causes of death shift from respiratory and infectious diseases to dementia and coronary heart disease. Last year, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia became the leading cause of death in the UK. Approximately 850,000 citizens are currently affected, and that figure is expected to rise to around 2 million by 2050.
The mortality rate for dementia has more than doubled since 2010, and because it is currently incurable, diagnosis is a lifelong condition. Part of the challenge is that we’re not certain what causes dementia or exactly how the disease progresses.
By the time dementia is diagnosed, extensive brain damage has often already occurred. And so researchers are carrying out a long-term study to try and identify changes – such as imperceptible alterations in movement – that could indicate the very early stages of dementia.
In the most in-depth Alzheimer’s study to date, the group will observe 250 healthy volunteers over a one year period. They will use modern diagnostics, including retinal imaging, brain scans, cognitive testing, blood tests and wearable technology, to learn more about the physical manifestations of Alzheimer’s.
This is vital research, because the more knowledge we have, the better equipped we are to provide early, effective treatment that shuts down the disease before it has a chance to develop.
Preventing Heart Disease
Of course, dementia isn’t the only age-related illness on the rise. Cardiovascular disease affects an estimated 7 million people in the UK and as the population ages, rates of heart disease are significantly increasing. And yet, a 2017 study published in the journal Family Practice found that survival rates for patients with heart failure have not improved since 1998. In a survey of 54,313 patients, less than 30% survived more than 10 years after diagnosis.
But it’s not all grim news. Long-term studies of patient behaviours are helping us to learn more about the risk factors for heart disease and what actions we can take to reduce our chances of contracting illness in later life.
We already know that inactivity is bad for our health, but recent research has gone so far as to identify the exact sports we should play if we want to avoid cardiovascular disease.
In an eight year survey of 80,000 adults, scientists found that whilst football and running had little significant preventative impact, racquet sports like tennis were associated with a 56% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Meanwhile, swimming showed a 41% lower risk, and aerobics a 36% lower risk.
Coronary heart disease is a chronic condition – there is no cure. But it can be both prevented and managed, and as we learn more, we will become better at preventing, treating and managing this condition.
There’s still much work to be done to address the challenges inherent in population ageing. But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that living longer, healthier lives can be a wonderful thing. We can now stay active for longer than ever before – that means more time to explore, more time to spend with loved ones, more time to enjoy the beauty and variety of life.
A version of this article was originally published in The Oxford Mail