Healthy debate on lifestyle and longevity

21 March 2012

Increasing use of drug therapies to counteract the effects of obesity was just one of the social influences on demographic trends that captured the public’s attention following Professor Sarah Harper’s Oxford London Lecture last week (13 March). Harper, Director of the Oxford Institute for Population Ageing and a member of the Oxford Martin School, was addressing an audience of several hundred members of the public, government, business and academia who were eager to find out if we have currently found ourselves in “the last century of youth”.

Populations around the world have been experiencing dramatic changes in their fertility rates and life expectancy. Harper’s vibrant and energetic lecture presented some striking theories about future demographic trends and how social behaviour is affecting our economy and society.

Some of the themes that emerged from Harper’s lecture were:

Longevity and lifestyle – will we have to resort to more and more drugs to keep us alive?

Harper highlighted the rapidly declining percentage of young people across the world as the population ageing trend moves across the globe. She talked about social behaviour that has had significant impact on mortality rates over the past 50 years. If smoking was the lifestyle epidemic of the last century, she explained, then obesity is the lifestyle epidemic of the 21st century. Curiously, perhaps, Harper noted that while obesity rates are increasing, deaths related to obesity are going down, indicating that increasing use of drug therapies is counteracting the effects of obesity. Although public health initiatives were successful in reducing smoking, Harper believes that we may be moving to a culture where, rather than having healthy lifestyles, we can actually just pop a pill. “We must decide if we wish our future to be one where, at increasingly younger ages, we pop pills rather than eat healthily, stop smoking, reduce alcohol and take up exercise,” Harper suggested.

Life transitions - when life expectancy is increasing to 100, 120 or more years, can we expect first time parents to be in their 50s, 60s or even 70s?

While we live in societies that may be bringing down the age at which we can legally do things like buy a house or get married, we are delaying those transitions. We are delaying marriage, children, house-buying and permanent jobs. Other social factors affect some of these things but individual choices – often informed by the availability of technological or medical advances (e.g. fertility treatment) – are having a huge impact on the way our lives may change in the future.

Intergenerational equity – what kind of hope is on the horizon for future generations?

While much attention has focused on the burden of the ageing generation – reduced opportunities and resources left for generations that follow us, to be part of a diminishing younger population is actually very positive. There will be a global demand for skills which could bring huge opportunities for smaller cohorts of young people. Our younger generations are likely to be better educated, have better health, greater access to communication, greater choice regarding work. The horizons of young people in a world of diminishing youth will be broader than any other generation that has preceded them.

Harper concluded her lecture with, ‘The message is I think clear– the 21st century is unlikely to be the last century of where youth exists, but it is also unlikely that we will see a return to population structures dominated by young people. In that sense it will be the last century to see the youthful demographies which the human race has experienced to date. We are seeing unprecedented change in our population structures.’

The Oxford London Lecture 2012 is an annual lecture series hosted by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford and staged in association with The Guardian. The series aims to explore the latest Oxford research and consider how it can affect the world in the 21st century. In this year's lecture Professor Harper has discussed the effects of a global demographic transition whereby falling birth rates and longevity are changing the age structure of countries.

Selected press coverage from Harper’s lecture includes:

Years extended through simple lifestyle changes
Mar 2012 | Brisbane Times

Lifestyle change halved heart death rate
Mar 2012 | United Press International

Saving lives, spending less
Mar 2012 | The Guardian

We would rather pop a pill than live a healthy life
Mar 2012 | The Telegraph