When it comes to aging, Canadians have much to celebrate: we’re not only living longer, but we’re also living longer in good health. Collectively, we’re learning more about longevity and how we can be best prepared for the physical, social, and financial impact of a long life.
Consider how far we’ve come: During the Roman Empire, an average person might have lived to 25. At the turn of the 20th century, life expectancy was 50 years. Now, the average life expectancy in Canada is 82.8 (80.9 for men and 84.7 for women).
“I expect that will continue to climb in the coming years as well,” says Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Sinai Health System and University Health Network in Toronto. “Geriatric care wasn’t even coined a speciality of medicine in Canada until the 1980s.”
Medical advances, improved living standards, and healthier lifestyles have all contributed to the gains. Also known as the golden years, the third age (between retirement and the onset of age-induced physical, emotional, and cognitive limitations) is, for many, a time of personal fulfillment and achievement.
“We’re seeing some very strong benefits of extra years of life,” Sinha says. “When we look at the art creations of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, they did some of their most spectacular work in their later years. That reminds us of some of the incredible benefits of the dividend of longevity.”
What is the “longevity dividend”?
In researching the longevity dividend, experts at the International Longevity Centre found that as life expectancy increases, so does productivity (or “output per hour worked, per worker and per capita”), ultimately boosting economic growth.
Older people have acquired skills and experience that enable them to fill roles where labour shortages exist; they can mentor younger workers, and they often take on caregiver roles, such as looking after grandkids and elderly parents, all for social and economic good.
Countries that are capitalizing on the longevity dividend aim to build upon the resource of older workers. Singapore, where life expectancy is approximately 83, for instance, is investing in efforts to promote personal growth and human capital with lifelong learning programs.
Intergenerational education is becoming more common in Hong Kong through Elderly Academies. In Japan, the government has invested in Silver Human Resource Centres to aid older people in filling skills shortages.
According to the creator of this term, influential Cambridge social historian and political philosopher Peter Laslett, “The Third Age stands for the dignity and creativity, the social importance and public significance, the self-respect and civic virtue of older people which certainly continue indefinitely into later life, unless or until a Fourth Age of decrepitude intervenes, and often even after that.”
Financial security in the third age
Some people will not only live a longer, healthier life, but they’ll do so with financial security. Unfortunately, in Canada this is not a common scenario. Seventy percent of Canadians do not have a defined contribution pension plan. And Canadians without employer pensions are retiring with a total of $3,000 on average in personal savings.
“We’ve made a lot of gains with better health care and science on nutrition and well-being, but our social systems haven’t kept pace,” says Michael Nicin, executive director of the National Institute on Ageing (NIA), a Ryerson University think tank that focuses on policy. “We haven’t done as good a job to help people enter retirement with greater financial security.”
“The fear of outliving your money has become the top concern people have,” he adds, noting that a significant portion of Canadians are relying almost exclusively on the Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security, and Guaranteed Income Supplement. “When you add all those up, and people don’t get all of it, at the high end you’re still looking at less than $20,000 a year,” Nicin says.
Where will third agers call home?
One aspect of successful longevity that the NIA is researching is the benefits of aging at home in the community rather than in institutionalized settings. It looks to countries such as Denmark, which spends nearly three-quarters of its funding on supporting people at home and one-quarter on institutional arrangements. It’s a model that’s flipped here in Canada, which spends about 87 percent on nursing homes and 13 percent on home care, according to Nicin.
Preventive health ages well
Another shift that can enhance longevity is reframing the view of aging as a burden. A preventive health model does away with the notion that old age is a disease.
Regular physical activity tops the list of things we can do to age healthily. “The more exercise we do throughout our lifespan, the greater benefits we add,” Sinha says. “It allows us to retire with better heart health and better brain health.”
Not smoking is another proven method of boosting lifelong health, as is maintaining meaningful social connections. In terms of health risks, loneliness has been found to be the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
“There are a lot of things we can do from a preventive health standpoint,” Sinha says. In other words, our personal destiny is not just a matter of genetics or fate.
In addition to not smoking and getting regular exercise, there are other preventive steps we can take to stay well.
Taking care of our eyesight is vital. Neglecting our vision health raises the risk of falling as well as potential social isolation and decreased independence.
Caring for our hearing is essential; unmanaged hearing loss can lead to depression and social isolation and, according to Dr. Samir Sinha, increases the risk of dementia.
Getting restful sleep, exercising often, and eating a wholesome diet are all important components of healthy aging. Certain supplements can also help. Here are some to consider:
- vitamin B12
- vitamin D
- omega-3 fatty acids
There are extreme sports … But extreme lifespans? “Longevity escape velocity” (also called “actuarial escape velocity”) describes a hypothetical situation in which medical and technological advances (such as nanotechnology and artificial intelligence) add years to your life faster than the passage of time. Maybe 100 will be the new 60 if we find ways to extend our lifespan faster than death can catch up.