Will you live to 120?

Thanks to advances in healthcare and genetic research, 60 may be the new middle age for women. We all need to adapt

January 14, 2010
By Linda Duberley

Somewhere among us is a 60-year-old woman who has just started drawing her pension. She has also applied for her bus pass, and in all likelihood renewed several subscriptions to fashion magazines. She has at least two children and several grandchildren. And here’s the good news: she’s only halfway through her life, and she could be you.

News that scientists have discovered a gene that is known to treble your odds of living to 100 and may help you to ward off Alzheimer’s merely adds weight to a wealth of research that states that women especially have a high chance of living until they are well over 100 years old.

It is estimated that one in six women in the UK is now a pensioner. According to Nigel Barlow, head of research at the life assurance company Just Retirement, soon that number will increase to one in four and by the end of the decade one in three.

“If we think that the UK high street is likely to be swamped with women pushing their trolleys home for an early tea, we need to think again,” he says. “These women bear no relation to our preconceived idea of female pensioners. They are exceptional super-grandmothers. There are instances of women applying for motorcycle licences and participating in charity parachute jumps in their eighties.”

What we have not taken on board, Barlow continues, is that such women will become the norm. “We need to review what we regard as middle age,” he says. “The idea that 60 signals the start of a less active, less vibrant and less productive life is now nonsense.”

His view is shared by the author and futurist Patrick Dixon, who goes even farther. “Our knowledge about healthcare is doubling every year. In the five years between 2045 and 2050, there are likely to be more advances than we have seen in the past 25 years. It would be unthinkable that by the time a potential 120-year-old woman has lived another 30 years beyond her current age of 65, she won’t see extra life expectancy of at least five years.”

Advertisers, retailers and crucially the Government cannot afford to ignore this group, says Barlow: “After all, as someone said recently, they have the money. Correction, they have all the money.”

In an age when the film industry, television, the corporate world and even politicians are busy trying to pretend that the 50-year-old woman does not exist, plenty of women are happily going about their business, at 60, caring for their grandchildren and fitting in a Pilates session before buying a frock with their daughter at Comptoir des Cotonniers. Why not? They have may another five decades.

Ironically, the fashion industry — known for its love of youth — illustrates this trend best. Carine Roitfeld, 55, the legendary editor of French Vogue, is a muse for most of the UK’s high street brands. As is the American Vogue Editor Anna Wintour, 60, and her invaluable lieutenant, Grace Coddington, 67, who graced our screens last year in The September Issue, at the height of their powers.

Joan Burstein, the owner of Brown’s boutique, whose buying sense is unrivalled, is 85. And her niece Laurel Herman, 63, is one of our leading image consultants. “You cannot ignore the buying power or indeed the determination of so-called older women,” says Laurel. “We don’t want to go quietly into the night. If I feel like wearing Dolce & Gabbana to a cocktail party, then I will. So would my mother, and she is 87.”

But does everything look as good in the garden of longevity as it seems? It certainly looks a lot better than it did 30 years ago, when the worst figures for depression and related mental illnesses were for women entering their middle years.

Experts say that women will only make the most of this extra lease of life if they stay healthy enough to earn money for longer and they manage their savings with close attention. In part, this is because they can expect to be living on their own in their later years.

Many potentially fatal illnesses that largely affect women, such as breast cancer, can now be detected early by effective screening. According to Professor Thomas Kirkwood, director of the Institute for Ageing and Health at Newcastle University, the overall reason why we are living longer is that the improved conditions of life mean that we reach old age with fewer accumulated faults in our cells.

“That women live longer than men appears to be deeply rooted in biology,” he says. “There is some evidence that female cells are better protected against this accumulation of faults than men. There are evolutionary reasons why this should be so, because the maintenance of the female body plays such a central role in our reproductive process.”

It is also thought that the male hormone testosterone gives rise to a raft of killer conditions — principally heart disease. According to medical experts, once men have suffered heart disease they are more predisposed to vascular dementia and a range of other diseases. The hormone that, in a different age, would have given men the instinct and drive to succeed may now be the one that will drive them to death.

“Women are naturally sociable,” adds Barlow. “They feel a sense of connection and it leaves them feeling happy and positive. This is undoubtedly a factor in their health and wellbeing as they get older. They are better able to manage the transition into the final stages of their lives. Men develop a social life too, but it is often through their work. Once their work stops, they stop too.”

Professor George Magnus, a senior economic adviser at UBS, believes that “the figure of 120 years is in the right kind of ball park. But although this sounds very positive, it raises all sorts of questions about what quality of life these women will have.

“We have to get more women to stay at work or go back to work after having families. There are two groups of people who are underemployed. They are women and the over-55s. Women over 55 are doubly disadvantaged. As they get older they are subject to living on their own. Women need to know that they can look after themselves. People have to keep learning new skills. Learning does not stop at 21.”

There is a warning, however, for the daughters of women living to a ripe old age. Although we have done a great deal to delay the appearance of ageing and to improve screening and preventive medicines, we have made few advances in extending fertility. Doctors have extended women’s lives, but not the lives of the eggs from which they are born.

In utero baby girls have close on one million eggs. By the time that baby has been born, they are numbered in the hundreds of thousands. By the time that baby girl is 15, there may be less than half left and by the time she is a grown woman of 30 there will be 100,000 left. As she hits her early forties, less than a third of the way through her life at current estimates, there may be less than 10,000. And at 50, it is game over.

“I would be the last person to want to scare women who want to have babies later in life,” says Dr Melanie Davies of the Institute for Women’s Health. “But every obstetric complication rises with age and there is no NHS funding for IVF over 35. Nor have we extended the age of the menopause, which in the UK is around 51. It is still lower in smokers, starting in the late forties.”

In the 1950s women had their children at the age of 20 or 21. This has been extended to 29 — we are nearly a decade older than our mothers were when we start families. To make the most of our increased life span, Dixon suggests that women should aim to conceive at a much earlier age and start their careers later on.

“Women are best equipped to have children at a younger age when they have the more energy to raise children and fewer health problems,” she comments. “We all want to see greater life expectancy, but the issue facing women now is that they look and feel younger than some parts of their bodies. They are out of step with their biological clocks. In the US there are 75,000 people aged over 100. That number will double to 150,000 in the next five to six years. The same will happen here.

“We want super-survivors, but we have to think about the next generation too.With life expectancy and energy levels increasing at a far faster rate than fertility, we will have to find a way of managing that gap.”