The reason Australians are living longer is because of what we’ve done over the past 200 years. Growing scientific knowledge has underpinned improvements to living conditions (e.g. sewers, clean water and safe transport) and medicine (antibiotics, other pharmaceuticals, X-rays, etc.).
These changes have more than doubled the average lifespan at birth from around 35 at colonisation to 82 years. We know evolution has played little, if any, part in this: it doesn’t work that fast. Besides, evolution was only ‘interested’ in protecting successful genes through survival of offspring to maturity – around the time we reached our 30s.
If communities can influence their longevity, individuals can do the same. In the 1980s, research began to identify what was associated with people living longer. Studies take about 20 years to determine which group members survive and why. Publications from the early 2000s revealed expected and unexpected factors associated with longevity. We can group these loosely into five categories: surroundings, health, attitude, parents and eating (SHAPE).
The next step was to help a person understand by how much they might be different from the average and why. Through growing longevity awareness, people can be better informed about how their longevity may evolve and what they can do about it.
One way to do this is by using the SHAPE Analyser, a free tool. In 2008, I developed this service because efforts to plan finances and other matters rely on an assumption about each person’s timeframe. Fewer than 25 per cent of 65 year olds live to within three years of the national average lifespan for their age. Worse, we know the ‘official’ averages underestimate the likely outcome between ages 60 and 80 – just when people want to manage their finances as well as possible and make other important decisions.
As we live longer, we can reasonably expect to live to a slightly greater age, called the survival bonus.
Just as we review our investments and strategies at regular intervals, we can now review our expected longevity to decide for how long we will need to plan. By knowing what we assume (just like inflation and investment-return assumptions) and using best practice for managing our longevity, we are more likely to stay in some sort of control. We can’t ‘predict’ this accurately but we can make the most of what we know and are learning about longevity.
It’s also good to know that the factors that support increasing longevity are very similar to what underpins our quality of life. We are usually more concerned about quality than length of life, so being more aware of longevity will contribute to a better life, which may turn out to be longer as well!
The table below gives a brief idea of your longevity, depending on your age. The data is from an Australian study published in 2012, and is specific to men. Women typically have two more disability-free years at age 65, and two more dependent years. Both numbers drop to one year by age 75, with little difference by 85.
*Dependent years are defined as those with severe core activity limitations. Core activities consist of self-care, mobility and communication.
This data shows that on average most of our remaining years will be independent but disabilities increase. Even those who reach age 85 can on average expect another few years before becoming dependent.
The numbers also support the view that ‘the longer you live, the longer you’re likely to live’. At 65, the average lifespan is 84. For those surviving to 75, this increases to 87. For 85 year olds, the expectation is 91.
There are limitations on such numbers – they are averages. As we age, personal abilities and conditions vary more widely between people. As medical and social responses to ageing improve, life expectancies will change. Some good news is that as we age, there tend to be fewer dependent years.
This information is more optimistic than many might expect. However, an increasingly older population will cost more to service. What can we do about that? The more we know and take personal action to maintain our health and keep contributing, the lower the personal and community costs.
Firstly, try to understand why you might have a different lifespan from the average. Your SHAPE Analyser results will help you with this.
Next, talk with your doctor to understand how any current disabilities might evolve and what you can do about them. Share what you can learn about family tendencies towards disabilities that might affect you – such as vision, hearing, mobility and mental acuity.
Finally, calculate how much money you will need in retirement and work out a plan to meet your needs.
While there are no guarantees, having some sense of what might lie ahead helps with your decisions in seeking to manage things better.
David Williams is CEO of My Longevity, which he founded in 2007 to enable people to understand more about their own longevity. David is an in-demand speaker, writer and adviser on personal and community longevity issues.
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