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'The Longevity Imperative' - a book review

I heard Andrew Scott interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme with Dame Joan Bakewell the other day. His book is non-fiction yet it was described by the presenter as reading 'like a novel'. My interest piqued, especially when the thrust of the chat was how we underestimate the capacity of older people and the amount this age cohort contributes to society, I bought a copy straight away.

The Longevity Imperative- Building a Better Society for Healthier Longer Lives (Andrew J. Scott, Basic Books, 2024) is certainly packed with fascinating facts and when the author draws on his personal family history it is uncanny how large-scale population trends are mirrored in the particular details of his own forebears.

'A century and a half ago, life expectancy at birth was below forty years'... now 'the fastest growing demographic in the world is people aged one hundred or more', he writes.

'For the first time in several thousand years of human development, the young can expect to become the very old. That is a remarkable achievement.'

In its pages we learn about billionaires pumping vast sums of money into research on extending life, revolutionising ageing. Scott urges more research into not just 'immortality' for the few, but alleviation of chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and dementia for the many. 'We need to act and age differently from previous generations'. Scott is calling more integrated healthcare, for a twenty-first century public health initiative to help us age better because, otherwise, (and he spells it out unequivocally): 'Yes we'll be healthier for longer, but yes we shall also be living in poor health for longer.'

Notably absent from the book is any detailed discussion of the value of spiritual health and this dimension to ageing. There is examination though of the prospect longer life affords for 'personal growth or adult development.' TV Presenter Oprah Winfrey is quoted, for example, on the subject of the menopause: 'So many women I've talked to see menopause as an ending. But I've discovered this is your moment to reinvent yourself after years of focusing on the needs of everyone else.'

Elsewhere, the sixteenth century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne is cited, with his emphasis on the opportunity of longer life for accumulating wisdom and knowledge. 'Even as the body changes and its impermanence becomes clear, the mind discovers something fundamental and constant which transcends our individual selves. From this perspective it is a mistake to see ageing as something biological. Neither is it about the simple passing of chronological time but rather arriving at a greater understanding of ourselves and the meaning of time and our place in it.'

While the main insight of the 'evergreen agenda' is that the young have never been more likely to become old, chapters on inter-generational envy, and frustration on the part of the first generations growing up in the shadow of a large older cohort (and all the potential for strife that leads to) lend a certain frisson to the whole debate. Yet the question remains, what shall we do with our extra years, and not just for ourselves but for others?

'It may be hard to know exactly what you'll need when you become older but betting that health, relationships, purpose, skills and money are useful at all ages seems an eminently sensible strategy.'

One of his broad principles of Scott's new agenda is' not to underestimate the capacity of your later years': 'Ageing should not be feared... According to the data, old age is not as bad as you fear and because it is malleable it can be improved. Be positive.'

That's great, as far as it goes. Even though the book's epilogue is entitled 'The Power of Love' it focuses on what's in the ageing process for 'me' with no exploration of the notion of ageing as a time of relinquishment and self-emptying. Scott who is Professor of Economics at London Business school and co-founder of The Longevity Forum was aged 57 at the time of writing his book, published this year. Perhaps insights such as Wanda Nash gives, for instance, in Come Let Us Age - An invitation to grow old boldly (published posthumously - Wanda Nash, BRF, 2017) have to be lived and before they can be shared?

Wanda was musing on her own experience of growing older during a time of Stillness when a picture came to her:


I was a large, ripe, juicy apple.

And God came along and took a huge bite out of the apple.

I think he found it quite tasty and pleasurable, because another bite was taken, and then another.

Soon nothing was left but the core.

BUT within the core lay the seeds of the apple:

the cause for which the apple had been grown.

And the seeds couldn’t get out and be spread and germinated for others

unless the apple had been eaten or rotted! Then I knew what made it worth it.




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