Friday, March 10, 2006

An Ageing Problem?

by Edward Hugh



In a comment on CAP TvK's Ageing in the EU 25 post David Friedman said:

"Progress in biological knowledge has been very rapid in the past century, so it wouldn't be surprising if, well before 2050, the aging problem was solved."

Here there are two issues: that improvements in biological knowledge can lead to longer, more productive lives, and that ageing is a problem, and indeed a problem that has a solution. This post will adress the latter issue.

Ageing is a term we often use and hear today, but what do we really mean by it?

This commonplace that we are ageing is I suppose both self-evident - individually we are always that little bit older, each and every day - and surprising - Niger is getting older, Mali is getting older, Somalia is getting older. This is surprising since these are, effectively, among the youngest societies on earth (Niger, median age 15.8, Mali, median age 16.35, Somalia, median age 17.59). Now everyone is aware that Japan is getting older, everyone is aware that Germany is getting older (these are currently the two oldest societies on the planet), but Niger, Mali and Somalia!

In fact, apart from 18 'demographic outliers' as identified in the 2005 United Nations Human Development Report, each and every country on the planet is getting older. (For a comprehensive list of median ages go here). Nor is this societal 'ageing' a recent phenomenon, it starts from virually the outset of what has become known as the demographic transition - a process which began in many European societies in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This transition begins with a sudden and sustained drop in mortality, especially in infant mortality, and as a result of this mortality decline a society becomes 'suddenly young', since the child and youth cohorts rapidly become large in comparison with older age groups. The point most commentators seem to have missed here is that after this it is continuous ageing all the way, and forever. There is no end point in this sense. Nor should the fact that median ages are rising be seen as in and of itself a problem. It is, in fact, part of the normal pattern of events in an industrial and post industrial age.

Global life expectancy, to take but one example, has more than doubled over the past two hundred years, climbing from an estimated 25 years in 1800, to the present level of 65 for men and 70 for women. During this whole period maximum life expectancy has risen steadily by more than two years a decade

So if this weblog is, in part, about ageing, its starting point should be that this ageing is not a new or recent phenomenon (the 'discovery of ageing' is of course more recent, but that is another story) or even a phenomenon which we should view with particular preoccupation.

In conclusion back for a moment to the end point? This is the really interesting part, there is no end point, as life expectancy continues to push ever onwards and upwards we will all be living longer, and to date there does not seem to be any special biological limit to this process. Some may even live to see the day when Keynes's dictum "in the long run we are all dead" may even no longer hold. That is the good news.

P.S. This post has been basically ripped off from a couple of paragraphs in the introduction to a much longer work. I simply think the point needs making.

4 comments:

David Friedman said...

So far as I can tell, you are agreeing , not disagreeing, with the comment of mine that you quoted at the beginning. Aging is a problem not because the average age of societies is getting older but because I--and, I think, many other people--do not wish to grow progressively feebler and eventually die of old age.

That problem has been somewhat reduced over the past few centuries, as you point out, but not solved. It may well be solved at some point in the next forty years. If so--if people stop growing older--that will have a striking effect on the sorts of issues that demography deals with.

Which was my original point.

Edward Hugh said...

"Aging is a problem not because the average age of societies is getting older but because I--and, I think, many other people--do not wish to grow progressively feebler and eventually die of old age."

I'm sorry not to have been clear about whether I'm agreeing with you or not David. Really I suspect I am doing neither since I think that your main point is one I have explicitly tried to avoid addressing here. At our age (I think we are not too far apart) I fear we are condemned to get "progressively feebler and eventually die of old age". I have accepted that reality, and it doesn't really bother me.

At some hypothetical point in the future all this may well change, but it is that, hypothetical, and out there in the future.

Meantime our societies (and not simply we as individuals) continue to age. I am simply pointing out that this isn't new, and is essentially good news.

"It may well be solved at some point in the next forty years."

It may well be, or it may well not be. Since we don't know it might be advisable to be prepared for either eventuality.

"Aging is a problem not because the average age of societies is getting older"

No, I don't agree. Ageing becomes a problem when our median ages rise more rapidly than our mentality flexibilisation does. Essentially our life course (or institutional) structure isn't changing as rapidly as our life history (or biological) one is.

We are defined as a species by having as our immediate environment an institutional infrastructure and this infrastructure simply isn't changing anything like fast enough, nor for that matter is our perception of ourselves (though of course the two of these are intimately connected). Hence the 'ageing problem', and there is, of course, a problem.

In economic terms there are also life cycle behavioural issues, and these are all too evident in the current US-China imbalances or the limp internal consumption in high median age societies like Italy, Japan and Germany.

"if people stop growing older"

The thing is David, this sentence is in some sense a contradiction in terms, because if we stop growing older (and now I think I do understand what you mean) then simply we will no longer be 'people' but something else, and obviously from them on in (or should that be out) the whole ball game changes.

Edward said...

David, I have just had supper. I think that has clarified things for me a bit.

What you are saying may be true but empty. You are saying that humans have an ageing problem since they age. At some stage that whole ageing clock might be stopped by bio-genetic intervention, at which point that particular problem would be solved. I agree. Maybe this will be in 40 and maybe in 240 years. We don't know.

We will however then have at least one new problem: will we be human? This is not a trivial question. Or will we be some new species? This is not an argument for or against, simply an issue that is looming one day.

Meantime, the real world problem we have now is that we do in fact still age. Up to now environmental feedback processes which we still poorly understand have been at work with the consequence that our biological clock has been working more slowly in comparison with the rate of circulation of the planets, and working more slowly at a fairly constant rate, 2 years a decade in the swedish case.

This process is not universally the same. In Russia the biological clock has effectively accelerated, and in the US life expectancy isn't increasing as rapidly as elsewhere. The reasons for such differences, and what might be done about them, are what I think we (economists and others social scientists) should be using our collective resources to work on. When the biologists come up with their solution there will be time enough to think about the issues that will raise.

Dr. Leonid Gavrilov, Ph.D. said...

"Progress in biological knowledge has been very rapid in the past century, so it wouldn't be surprising if, well before 2050, the aging problem was solved."

This is a highly contentious issue, please see:

Longevity Science: SENS
http://longevity-science.blogspot.com/2007/01/sens.html