Facts about ageing

When do we begin to age?

One common answer is as soon as we are born. Others even say that the rot sets in earlier than this – for example, the number of eggs in an unborn baby girl's ovaries is already on the decline even before she is born!

Statistically our chances of dying are at their lowest at the age of about 10–11, at around the start of puberty. Some experts claim that this is when ageing begins.

How long can we hope to live?

The longest we can currently hope to live is about 120. Only one woman, Madame Jeanne Calment, had reliable proof that she had lived longer. The average life span is still about 75–80 for women and 70–75 for men. However, with current developments in healthcare and public health, more young people today might expect to live longer.

Modern life and ageing

Modern health, medicine, sanitation and lifestyle has done remarkably little to extend the overall maximum lifespan of the human species. This seems fairly fixed at an average of around 80 years, with a few people living to a maximum of 120 years.

However what is happening is that more and more people are living to reach these ages. Two hundred years ago, more than 80 % of the population would be dead by the age of 50, whereas now less than 10 % have died by 50.

How old is the oldest person in the world?

Madame Jeanne Calment, from Arles in France, had the most reliable claim to be the longest lived individual in the world. She was born on February 21, 1875 and died August 4, 1997 at the age of 122.

She took up fencing at 85, still rode a bicycle at 100, and released a rap CD at 121. She claimed she was ‘never bored’. By the end she was blind, nearly deaf and in a wheelchair, but still mentally alert and spirited.

There are plenty of other pretenders to the title but they don't have the documentary proof. Take a look at the claim by Njoki Wainaina in Kenya, for example, that she was born more than 15 years before Livingstone met Stanley, and is now the ripe old age of 143!

A diet for long life: olive oil or vegetables?

Over the years claims have been made for the youth-giving potential of all sorts of foods and elixirs. But could what we eat affect how we age?

Madame Calment claimed that the keys to long life were olive oil, port wine and chocolate. When she died there was great excitement because the woman then accepted to be the oldest person in the world was a vegetarian.

The Vegetarian Society said that 117-year-old Canadian Marie-Louise Febronie Meilleur was living proof of the benefits of being a vegetarian. Current research backs up this up ; lifelong vegetarians visit hospital 22 % less often than meat eaters and when confined to hospital, spend a shorter time there.

Vegetarians overall suffer 20 % less premature mortality from all causes, compared to their meat eating counterparts.

However, sadly Marie-Louise died not long after and the record then went to a 117-year-old American woman who hated vegetables. Her relatives explained that she tended to eat foods like chocolate, crisps, pretzels and sweets while avoiding anything remotely resembling a vegetable.

You're as old as you feel!

A recent American survey showed that age is all in the mind. On average, across all the age groups questioned, a person was considered to be ‘old’ at 69. But those aged 18–24 thought someone was old at 58, while those aged 65 or older thought that 75 could be considered old.

Young people are also more likely to see being old as a physical thing – having grey hair or wrinkles, whereas older people describe being young not in physical terms but more in attitudinal characteristics such as being fun loving.

by Dr Trisha Macnair