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Are we as old as we feel?

A survey of older people by the Australian Council on the Ageing in 2019 showed 80 per cent of people over 50 felt younger than their actual age, with more than half of over-50s saying they felt more than 10 years younger than they actually were.

How do we equate this ‘feeling younger’ with when most of us in our early teens yearned painfully to be older?

The reality seems to be that the older we get the greater the gap is between our real age and the age we feel. “On average, the over-80s feel 13 years younger than they are, while 50 to 59-year-olds feel nine years younger on average,” the survey finds.

While this is positive, it is looking backwards. It tells us that we feel younger than we are. But what about going forward? Can we be so sanguine? Does that life expectancy in the 80s mean that we continue feeling as we do right now, until we suddenly drop off the twig holing out on the 18th or looking at the sunset from the roof of our motorhome on the beach at Broome?

There is another measure of life expectancy kept by the statisticians around the world. It is called health-adjusted life expectancy, or HALE. It is just as it sounds, the number of years we spend in full health. According to the pre-eminent international study of mortality, the Global Burden of Disease Study, the HALE for Australian men is 69 years and for women 71.7 years.

Suddenly, that horizon for carefree living has moved more than a decade closer. It may have arrived. Of course, these are averages. For some there will be a lifetime of chronic pain while others will get the golden ticket.

What the statistics do show is that there is a fair chance the last decade won’t be all beer and skittles for many of us.

With this realisation comes a new question: How do we live our best last 10 years? Look after your health, starting now.

Recent history shows we in Australia have been less successful at looking after ourselves than many other rich countries. After a couple of decades of relatively rapid improvements from 1990 there has been a significant slowdown in life expectancy in Australia in the past 10 years. Our average life expectancy is still growing, but the growth is anaemic.

In global terms, we’ve fallen from having the fifth highest life expectancy in 2009 to the 12th in 2017. That ranking is projected to fall even further in coming years, University of Melbourne population expert Tim Adair says our current HALE score sits at 14th in the world.

Adair says Australia’s life expectancy rose faster than other developed nations from the 1970s as a result of policy interventions to reduce smoking rates, cutting the prevalence of cancer and respiratory illnesses. “These interventions included increased taxation on tobacco products, advertising restrictions and smoke-free environment legislation,” Adair says.

But having banked these life expectancy improvements decades ago, other countries are rapidly catching up. “Smoking prevalence in Australia is now relatively low, and there simply isn’t much further for it to fall to have a significant impact on life expectancy.”

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