8 September 2022
What did the older generation ever do for us?
by Paul Branch
A new dawn, a new day, a new Prime Minister. With all manner of support being promised to all and sundry by young Liz, there is the expectation she will start a new form of levelling up process for our seemingly forgotten generation of young people. Taking a leaf out of Joe Biden’s book perhaps by writing off billions in student debts. Or providing additional financial, social and health care to those left behind by Covid: the youngsters with mental health issues caused by feelings of isolation or deprivation, young families struggling with energy bills or lacking even basic housing. We oldies have had it far too good for far too long – time to move things around and close the generation gap.
Speaking as a baby-boomer-now-diamond-geezer, it does rankle a bit that the injustices visited on the young, sparked by Covid, are somehow deemed to be all our fault. Way back in 2020 the government eventually decided in one of its periods of enlightenment not to sacrifice the elderly and infirm but to better protect us through lockdowns and isolationism, to prioritise the distribution of precious vaccines in our favour, but by seemingly putting all the burden of paying for the consequences on the younger generations. The flames of resentment are now being fanned ever faster by impossibly high fuel bills at the heart of the cost of living crisis. Never mind that we pensioners have lost the comfort of the triple lock on our benefits (albeit only temporarily, allegedly) – what is the older generation doing to restore some sort of balance with the young?
Let’s start with death. Not our own, obviously. But how are we, the crumblies, helping to improve the health of the young and put off the arrival of the final farewell? It’s useful to recall that the health care enjoyed by one generation is generally provided and funded by the medics and tax payers of previous generations. And comparing life expectancies is a nice way of demonstrating that things may not be quite as miserable as they seem for our younger folk.
For those in my school year born around 1947, the expectation was that, on average, we could be looking at 65 years of existence. In practice for men that meant retiring from work just as the grim reaper was beckoning. In all probability the illness that heralded our eventual departure would have started some years earlier, so effectively there were only 50-60 years of healthy, gainful life to be had before cancer, senility or some other malady cast its shadow. A lot better situation though than if we had been born twenty-five years earlier when life expectancy was around 58, and an even bigger improvement on the previous generation when it was only 50. Looking forward now, the Covid class of young people born around 2000 will have something like 77 years of life expectancy — not a bad outlook.
Such numbers and the assumptions that accompany them however do not tell the whole story. Getting back to the Class of ‘47, and having made it this far, there’s a realistic expectation of carrying on well beyond 65, and even past 75. Reaching the mid-to-late eighties is a distinctly attainable target, with the possibility of surviving still further, even to the point of being the happy recipient of a congratulatory message from a future King. Improvements in health care and diet of course are the reasons for extending our stay of execution, assuming that we do not succumb prematurely to nuclear holocausts or fuel-free winters. For subsequent generations, reaching a century should be a lot more common.
Medical research is set to progress in leaps and bounds, but more for the benefit of the current younger generations. Referring again to those fortunates in the Class of ‘47, we were blessed with a nascent NHS, the orange juice and school milk that came with it, the surge in applications for penicillin and other antibiotics, the development of drugs and therapies for the treatment of cancer in its many forms, vaccines to prevent the onset and spread of diseases, innovative surgical procedures and prosthetics, improvements in social care, and the rise of the gargantuan medical and pharmaceutical industry in general. Younger generations have all this as their start point to help propel their life expectancy still further. But there will be a much needed change of emphasis, towards health span rather than just lifespan, as a means of improving the quality of living longer.
For all the previous advances in medical technology, there’s been a problem with how to stop the ageing process. The general trajectory has remained the same – once you’re into the last laps of your life, health starts to gradually decline. Which is where modern medical research is becoming much more focused, on medicines that help to greatly sustain our health and independence as we head into those so-called golden years. Instead of waiting for cancer or dementia to occur, and then trying to develop cures or ways of coping, researchers are seeking to understand what mechanisms in our bodies cause these ageing diseases to occur, and then potentially develop preventative treatments which stop people getting ill in the first place.
For example there are already treatments for cellular senescent ageing, where redundant cells are removed along with their accompaniments that contribute to common diseases. Recent research has demonstrated that this anti-ageing process makes the organs biologically “younger”, resulting in general improvements in health and a lower susceptibility to future occurrences of illnesses normally associated with old age, such as heart disease, cancer and even cataracts. Similar strategies are being explored for diabetes and dementia, using different techniques specific to the particular illness such as stem cell technology and immunotherapy. Extrapolating to future generations with expected lifespans of up to 120 years, such treatments would enable them to stay healthy and active (ie, young) far longer, and have to endure only a couple of years say of old age and infirmity. And it’s not necessarily the case that keeping people alive for that long would serve only to contribute to an already overcrowded planet. Healthier bodies and minds, even old ones, would not put such a strain on our medical and care resources, and could contribute far more positively to improving life on Earth.
Despite all the privations and injustices suffered by our youngsters today (and yes, Ms Truss certainly needs to do a lot more for them), they may therefore like to dwell on ways in which they could perhaps try to understand us old fogies a bit better, or see some positives in still having us around. This seems to be the case in Japan where people live longer and healthier, and one factor in this could be that old folk in Japan are celebrated and feted – they even have a national holiday dedicated to the aged – and remain an essential part of the family. It’s therefore possible that the Japanese tradition of celebration and integration of the aged contributes to a healthier and more productive longer old age. So, given all the benefits coming down the line for youngsters in the future, mainly at “our” expense, maybe they should be asking themselves not what did my grandad ever do for me, but rather: what can I do for my grandad?
tile photo Raghavendra V. Konkathi on Unsplash