It's not a pretty picture. The Big Hope used to be that we'd live longer, but that disease and disability would be compressed into short period at the end of life. Well-being would be a step function that dropped off quickly just before we dropped dead. Unfortunately, increasing lifespan is combining with an increase in degenerative disease to create "expanded morbidity," a long and painful decline towards our demise.
The factoid in context:
The prevalence of most degenerative diseases, such as cancer, and vascular and neurodegenerative disease, increases roughly exponentially with age. For example, the prevalence of Alzheimer's is about 1 per cent at 65 years of age and approximately doubles every five years after that, to around 25 per cent for 85-year-olds. In the US, 46 per cent of people over 85 years of age are thought to have Alzheimer's. There are an estimated 5 million people with Alzheimer's in the US today, and as people live longer this number is projected to rise to 12.5 million by 2050 (Journal of Psychiatric Research, vol 36, p 281).A friend who teaches geriatric nursing tells me that the Boomer Generation is particularly unprepared for this fate: they have always rejected the prospect of growing old.
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Of Americans older than 80 years, 74 per cent have a disability. They are also more likely to be forgetful, confused or depressed. Almost a quarter of non-institutionalised Americans over 85 are thought to be severely depressed.
Guy Brown argues that we need to put "death, dying and dementia" on the political agenda. He advances the need for more research and hospice funding - and for a new attitude to death.
The hard part is teaching our hearts what our heads (in their more sober moments) already know: death is a part of life. It's hard enough accepting the small inconveniences of life; learning to accept death seems almost impossible. At least longer life spans means we have a little more time to practice than our forebears.