One of the many virtues of Lewis Wolpert’s excellent investigation of “the surprising nature of getting old” is that he does not treat the elderly as an undifferentiated blob, distinguished only by different degrees of dependency, deafness, cantankerousness, technological incompetence and resistance to novelty.
Variety, rather than uniformity, is to be expected since we bring to our later years a lifetime of experiences. Increasing age is typically marked by decline in physiological function, a growing burden of disease and a rising probability of dying, but many factors determine our physical nick and attitudes to life.
Our genetic inheritance, our quality of life in utero, education, class, career, lifestyle, status, levels of physical, mental and social activity are just some of the main influences.
The ageing body is like a field self-sown with mines. Wolpert treats us to a sprightly tour that encompasses the diseases and neurological conditions that may await us en route to extinction. But even this familiar territory is planted with surprises.
For example, those who earlier in life endorse negative stereotypes of their elders are more prone to poor health when they themselves are old, in part because they are more likely to attribute remediable problems to irremediable ageing.
What’s more, as Wolpert demonstrates in his bracingly angry pages on the abuse of older people, society at large may be as influential on wellbeing. (There is, by the way, no obligation to be miserable. According to a German study of 21,000 people, happiness peaks at the age of 74.) It is important to grasp the distinction between often treatable diseases that come with advancing years and ageing itself. “Pure” ageing is the result of an accumulation of random molecular damage to that “society of billions of cells” that comprises our body. This is allowed to happen, as the biologist Tom Kirkwood first pointed out, because in the wild few creatures survive long enough to die of old age.
Wolpert’s sceptical tour of anti-ageing remedies could save readers a lot of money: immortality or even a perfect complexion do not yet seem to be available in a jar, a pill or a syringe. And while there are astonishing laboratory examples of life extension due to, for instance, restricted-calorie diets, who would want to live longer in a state of semi-starvation?Raymond Tallis in The Telegraph. More Here