Three things have been making me think about the ageing process lately. Firstly, I’m getting old myself. Although this is at the standard rate of 24 hours a day, I have got a fair number of days under my belt (24,539 if you want to know!). Secondly, I keep getting asked why is 70 the key age for the coronavirus? Thirdly, I gave a talk about three weeks ago to a joint Centre for Ageing Well and Local Government Association event in Manchester.
Why 70? Well it is a fairly arbitrary number. As we all know there are people who are extremely unhealthy at the age of 60 and people who are extremely healthy at the age of 80. The fact is that the stronger and healthier you are the less likely that you will not easily or at all recover when, and there is almost an inevitability about this, the coronavirus reaches you personally.
What is killing most of those unfortunate to die because of the coronavirus are the underlying health issues that they have faced. Their bodies, and especially their respiratory systems are already weak and the response and immune systems are just overwhelmed. Of course, our bodies do become weaker as we get older. Bits and pieces give up or are slowed down. 70 is just an age when more and more people have some elements of debilitation. I listened to Dr Clare Gerada on the Today programme this morning. Clare is an East End of London GP and the former President of the Royal College of GPs. She really does know what she is talking about.
She has had the virus and believes she is now immune. Her description is that it was like the worst Flu she had ever had for 4 days. She dealt with it with paracetamol, lots of fluids and plenty of sleep. Others, particularly young people, may already have felt ‘a bit of a cold.’ But be warned this is neither flu nor a bit of a cold although that may be what it feels like. This is a virus that has a far higher death rate than either of those. It doesn’t kill everyone or even a majority but it is more likely to kill than any other virus we have seen probably since the Spanish Flu which killed so many people in 1918/20.
But you don’t try and stay healthy through your life because you want to avoid a virus that you had never heard of. You stay healthy throughout your life because you want to be fit and healthy because that makes you feel mentally and physically fit. The opposite of that, of course, is that if you are not fit you are prone to all manner of diseases, ailments and problems throughout your life and for many the key decisions about fitness have been made many years before.
In my talk to the Centre for Aged I started with the fact that the 3% of 11-year olds who are morbidly obese are almost certain to have poor health outcomes throughout their life and an early death. Their muscular/skeletal systems just won’t have formed properly. In fact, it starts earlier than that. If you are born to a Mum who drinks, smokes or takes drugs you will be born underweight with consequences for you throughout your life.
So is this all about the inevitability of ill health and early death. Not at all. There are two ways in which we can collectively and individually stave off the grim reaper.
Collectively it is the responsibility of central and national government to ensure that every one of our citizens, in what is a relatively wealthy country, should live in accommodation which is appropriate to their needs; is warm and weatherproof and set in a nice environment. The fact that not one government since 1973 has lived up to its own new build housing targets is a scandal which all politicians should take responsibility for. A good home provides the basis for a good life; for good education; for good jobs. We could, if we chose provide all these things.
Local Government can, if it were resourced and supported properly, do far more than that. It is the level of government which interacts with every single citizen and does so in a context not of big, high flying policies and programmes but at a human level to which all of us relate. We can, if supported, provide the basis in which people and their families can work together to build the self-supporting communities which enable people to thrive. Local councils manage to do much of this already. Look at our parks, bus passes, libraries, community centres, fitness centres, community grants and many other things. Relatively they don’t cost very much but millions of people every day take advantage of them.
Every single one of us can take lifestyle decisions that will improve their own fitness. If you go to the Park you will see many people who are physically and mentally fit; the libraries are used by people keeping their brains active. Both places (well not for the next few months perhaps) are places where people can chat and natter and engage in the type of social intercourse which keeps people active and feeling a part of a wider society.
It has been estimated that loneliness has the same health effect as smoking 25 cigarettes a day. Loneliness is something that we can all do something about individually and as a community.
So, I close by making a special coronavirus plea but one that I hope will not be forgotten when we pass though this terrible phase in our nation’s health history. Don’t let anyone in your street or community be lonely. In the short term make sure that they do have the essentials of life which appear to be food and bog paper! You don’t have to embrace them but just watch out if single people are about and more importantly when they are not. Just the simplest human interaction and kindness can have a huge effect on people’s lives.
When we have got through this let’s take it a stage further. Take people for a walk in the park with you. Pop round to their house for a cup of tea. See if they want a library book. See if the reason they don’t go on a bus journey is that they have no-one to go with. If we are invoking a war time ‘blitz’ spirit that is surely for all of us the key message. Remember your neighbours, be part of a community and everyone, including you, will benefit from your actions.