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08.08.2013 - Ausgabe: 4/2013

The trend growing older – Demographic change

Thomas More’s novel Utopia portrays growing old in the 16th century as “an illness”.


500 years later Vicco von Bülow alias Loriot came to a similar conclusion before his 80th birthday: “Ageing is an impertinence!” The fact is: from time immemorial, man has been confronted with the knowledge that his own existence will one day come to an end. And he battles stubbornly, though without success against his inexorable transience, but goes on growing older.

The number of older people is increasing rapidly the world over. By the middle of the century, the proportion of those of pensionable age will more than double, as emerges from a report by the United Nations. Europe remains by far the oldest continent, and Germany is particularly affected by the development. The population here is shrinking and constantly growing older, and has been declining since 2003. At the last count, it stood at 81.7 million. According to calculations of the Federal Statistical Office, Germany will lose about 17 million inhabitants by 2060, about a fifth of the population. Every third person will then be 65 or older, every seventh at least 80 years old.

It is striking that mankind as a species has constantly been growing older over the past 150 years. And life expectancy goes on rising constantly. According to model calculations, by 2060 it will be 85 years old for newborn boys and 89.2 for newborn girls. This strictly linear trend has been demonstrated from 1840. Thus mankind has gained 40 years of life expectancy since then, and no end to the prolongation of life is in sight. Around 2100, says James Vaupel, Head of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, the majority of the population will live to be 100.

Thus the ageing society will become a main challenge of the 21st century, because an increasing life expectancy could also be accompanied by a rise in age-related diseases and disabilities.
In Kiel, thousands of people are making themselves available to the “Healthy Ageing Research Group”. Those of advanced age, that is people who have already celebrated their 98th birthday, are giving blood. The scientists extract the individual genome from this, and archive it in their “popgen” biobank, the largest in Germany. The Kiel-based researchers working with the molecular biologist Stefan Schreiber then meticulously investigate the highly complex genome, defining the specific effects of even the smallest components. Using high-tech equipment, so-called “high throughput technology”, they seek the genome of the test persons, looking out for genes which the researchers strongly suspect are relevant to longevity. In any case, these genes play a key role in controlling important physiological process – the metabolism or genetic repair in the cell.
“Understanding the phenotype of healthy ageing” is what Schreiber’s leading researcher into ageing, Almut Nebel, calls it. If they succeed in this, medicine will probably have to be fundamentally redefined and oriented towards preventing illness and preserving health into old age, so that the mocking tones of the 18th century Irish author Jonathan Swift would one day be history: “Everybody wants to live forever, but nobody wants to grow old”.

Life expectancy in Germany

That fits in with the announcement by the Federal Statistical Office: life expectancy in Germany has risen yet again. On the basis of the life table 2009/2011, which relates to current mortality rates, for newborn boys this is 77 years and 9 months and for newborn girls 82 years and 9 months. As the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) further explains, in comparison to the previous life table 2008/2010 life expectancy for newborn boys has risen by 3 months and for girls by 2 months.

Life expectancy has continued to increase for older people too. According to the life table 2009/2011, for example the remaining life expectancy, or so-called further life expectancy, of 65-year-old men is another 17 years and 6 months. In statistical terms, 65-year-old women can expect to live for another 20 years and 8 months. In comparison to the preceding life table 2008/2010, further life expectancy among 65-year-old women has thus increased by 2 months and among men by 1 month.
It furthermore emerges from the life table 2009/2011 that, on the basis of current mortality rates, in statistical terms every other man in Germany will reach the age of 80 at least and every other woman may even celebrate her 85th birthday.

If the mortality trend observed in the past continues uninterruptedly into the future, the findings in the generational life table mean that statistically a boy born in 2009 has a life expectancy of 86 years and 5 months. In the case of a girl, this is even 90 years and 8 months,

Population in the Eastern Germany ageing faster

By 2060, Eastern Germany will be far more greatly affected by the decline in and ageing of the population than will Western Germany. In 2060 about 37% fewer people will live in the new federal states (without Berlin) than in 2008 and 36% of them will be 65 years old or more. This development will accelerate particularly quickly over the coming two decades. Already in around 2030 the population of the new federal states will be 15% lower than it is today and every third inhabitant will be 65 years old or more. This is shown by one of the two variants of the 12th coordinated population projection according to federal state, which the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) has now announced as a supplement to the national findings published on 18 November 2009. The population projection coordinated between the Federal Statistical Office and the state governments supplies comparable results for all federal states.
In the new states, rapid ageing is not only having an effect in terms of an increasing number of older people, but is also resulting in a decrease in the potential labour force. The number of people of working age (from 20 to under 65) will fall from 8 million (as of 2008) to 5.6 million in 2030 (-30%) and then to 4 million in 2060 (-50%). Correspondingly, the so-called old-age dependency ratio, which shows how many senior citizens there are to 100 people of working age (here from 20 to under 65 years of age), will rise from today's figure of 37 to 68 in 2030.

Over 100s

Improved medicine, rising living standards, better education, a better diet and a healthy lifestyle in terms of fitness are enabling the population to age.
The “Healthy Ageing” research group at the University of Kiel analysed over 1000 people of advanced age in 2010. “These people often remain fit and healthy for a very long time and then die relatively suddenly”, the study states. It is also known why that is so. Active old people remain agile until the end.
HD 100 - The Heidelberg study of 100-year-olds, under the project management of Dr. Christoph Rott, states: Despite numerous cognitive and functional impairments, most hundred-year-olds view their lives very positively. 86% want to make the best of their life, while life at the age of 100 is meaningful for 75%. “On average, the oldest in society are as happy as the young”, Christoph Rott explains.
The power of a person’s mindset is decisive. Those who hold to negative stereotypes regarding old age and therefore expect limitations also suffer them. Those who shake them off turn their biological clock back. This has been demonstrated by Ellen Langer from Harvard University. Langer’s summary: “It is not primarily the physical self that sets limits for us, but rather the mental conviction that such physical limits exist”.
While ageing does mean change, it does not necessarily mean decay – and the body follows the mind.

Diagrams: Federal Statistical Office
Bild: © PictureArt - Fotolia.com

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