Ambassadors of ageing
As we celebrate the European Year of Active Ageing, we should also look deeper into the achievements of our own national ambassadors of ageing.
From a long-distance runner crossing finish lines well into her 70s to a tireless octogenarian providing guidance to the young in the local band club all our ambassadors of ageing have one common trait: they have been living life in good health.
Health selection impacts the individual’s attained socio-economic status and affects the attitude towards active living and ageing. Active ageing does not go without good health. It comprises good mental as well as physical health, which is why our national ambassadors of ageing have so much in common.
In order to understand the “secret” behind their activity in older age, it is necessary to depart from the classical cohort analysis perspective and to dive deeper into intra-cohort characteristics. Population changes as cohorts and individuals change. Mutual interactions between individuals, their life choices and decisions, make conditions for generational (birth cohorts) changes, thus forming the so called mental cohort.
The concept of mental cohort, masterminded by Dutch demographer Dirk van de Kaa, posits that the influence of the current mental cohort translates itself to the subsequent cohorts’ behaviour too. It is from this perspective that the lead taken from one mental cohort (not necessarily one birth cohort) could spread to a wider change at the population level. This calls for a research orientation based on a life-course analysis in order to understand the micro-foundations in the lives of the agents of active ageing which led to their continuous activity even in higher stages of life.
Ageing is a stealth, surreptitious process. Apart from genetic and environmental factors, health status is, to a great extent, determined by available financial means and education. At root, education has an acculturating function, which is necessary to maintain good health throughout life. However, here there is a departure from their expected positive correlation both at the national and individual level.
Higher individual income or level of country’s development is broadly considered to result in a longer life but this is not always the case. For example, Finland has lower life expectancy at birth than Spain while Germany has lower life expectancy at birth than Greece! Long life is not always directly attributable to wealth.
The Eurostat 2008 figures show that the Maltese women with low educational attainment have better chances of living longer after age of 30 than the Maltese men with high education. The differences are striking. While Maltese low educated women have, on average, 53 remaining years of life after age of 30, Maltese highly-educated men have only 48 years.
However, within the same sex group, statistics show that education pays. Maltese women aged 30 with a high level of education live on average 19 months longer than their low-educated counterparts while, for men, this gap reaches an astonishing three years. This feminisation of longevity could positively lead to feminisation of active ageing too. As life-course progresses, the inevitability of morbidities associated with old age becomes much more pronounced and education makes much less significant impact on longevity. In Malta, the gap in life expectancy of women with low and those with high educational attainment at the age of 60 is 12 months while for men this gap stands at 13 months (Eurostat 2008 data). This situation is not only recorded in Malta but in Scandinavian countries and in neighbouring Italy too (Statistics in Focus, 24/2010, Eurostat).
Active ageing does not begin in old age. Given the growing army of pensioners and the shrinking size of the working-age population in the future, active ageing is set to become a mainstream approach. This calls for factoring in not only the obvious confounding attributes such as education, but other dimensions correlated to good health such as sex, marital status, family composition, status in employment, occupation, overall perception of one’s own success, happiness, self-esteem, determination and motivation, which could all lead to active ageing.
By some perceptions on ageing, one is considered old only after the age of 80 but some individuals are not old even then.
Dr Miljanic Brinkworth lectures on demography at the University of Malta.