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Keeping up with today’s new old - Measures redefine our age with life expectancy

Part-supported through the EU-funded RE-AGEING project, researchers offer population forecasting studies which encourage societies to break from outdated ageing measures and instead start categorising on how we live our lives.

Not that long ago when the hippie years were in full tempo around the world in the 1960s, being 60 years old would have been considered ‘old’. The average life expectancy in the world back then was below 55 years old. Now being 60 years old today is not considered so ancient due to improvements in life expectancy (nearing 70 years old globally), health and lifestyle. Nevertheless, this living reality shift struggles to be reflected by policymakers in their ageing calculations and corresponding classifications that nonetheless strongly characterise age-related social stigma. Such thinking and conventional ageing measures is precisely what two researchers wanted to confront. Warren Sanderson from Stony Brook University in New York and Sergei Scherbov, deputy program director of the World Population Program at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), have been working on changing how people think about age and ageing for over a decade. ‘Tackling this requires a new approach, because conventional measures of ageing are outdated, misleading, and do not take spatial and temporal variations in the characteristics of people into account. Taking the changing characteristics of groups of people, such as life expectancy and cognitive functioning into account allows the construction of new, multidimensional measures of ageing. These new measures provide novel perspectives on important policy questions,’ shares Sanderson. Population ageing is defined as when the median age rises in a country because of increasing life expectancy and lower fertility rates. But Sanderson and Scherbov’s new study findings published in the journal ‘PLOS’ provide more accurate characteristic-based population forecasting measures. ‘New characteristic-based measures, developed at IIASA, provide a more accurate assessment of the challenges of population ageing and the effects of policies to overcome them,’ stresses Scherbov. Their new measures focused on probabilistic projections from United Nations data to scientifically illustrate that one’s actual age is not necessarily the best measure of human ageing itself, but instead how ageing should be based on the number of years people are likely to live. ‘What’s important in ageing is how we function not how many birthdays we’ve had. So we have developed a new set of measures of ageing that adjusts for changes in life expectancy,’ describes Sanderson. So even though today’s 60-plus year olds are generally more active and healthier with better cognitive performances, traditional ageing measures still widely applied by our policymakers concentrate and classify according to chronological ‘old age’. ‘These organizations, through their policies and literature, say people are ‘old’ at 65. Because they do not take into account changes in people's characteristics such as improvements in life expectancy and health, these measures are becoming increasingly inappropriate for both scientific and policy analysis. There is now an emerging new paradigm that considers multiple characteristics of people including, but not limited to, their chronological age, ‘underlines Sanderson. Whilst both researchers are fully aware that one cannot get politicians to adjust public measurements, policies and attitudes according to a ‘Characteristics Approach’ with a more comprehensive view of population aging overnight, changing how we think about age can already have huge positive implications. The EU-funded RE-AGEING project, which contributed to the results outlined in the ‘PLOS’ study, will end in March 2019. The project is looking to develop new approaches to the study of age and ageing that are appropriate for 21st century conditions. For more information, please see: CORDIS project page



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