On Healthy Ageing

By Sola Mahoney

My old age “aha” moment came a little over ten years ago in my early 50’s, when attending a social event in Lagos. It was a relatively modest and intimate gathering by Lagos standards, and one of the first things I noticed when I arrived was that most people were in traditional attire — whereas I had arrived from work at a commercial bank wearing a navy blue pin-striped suit. So, when I heard the MC invite someone who he described as “the elderly gentleman in the dark suit” to come forward and make a few remarks, my immediate reaction was one of complete surprise because up until that point I had not seen this other person who was also wearing a suit. It was only as I tried to follow the MC’s line of vision to see who he was calling on that I realized that he – along with everyone else who incidentally was also trying to follow his line of vision – was actually looking at me. In short, I was the elderly gentleman in the dark suit.

I suspect many of us who are in our later years may have had similar landmark moments when the reality of their aging has suddenly hit us between the eyes so-to-speak. Sometimes it’s at the end of a particular exercise routine when you realize that you are getting far more tired far more quickly than you used to. At times it’s a simple injury that somehow evolves into a long-term disability. Sometimes it’s how long it takes you to recover from a particular bug, reminding you that your immune system is not as robust as it used to be. And sometimes it’s no more than an innocent comment from a casual bystander.

And while these individual moments may stand out in our memory as significant signposts in our ageing process, the physiological and scientific reality is that ageing is not a one-time event. You can’t really point to a particular day on which you started to age because the aging process begins at birth and continues throughout the course of our lives. This is a particularly Important lesson that we must all learn and take on board as we think about our bodies, our health and our ageing.

Today is the International Day of Older Persons celebrated every year on October 1st, which this year coincides with the first year of the United Nations Decade of Healthy Ageing. Healthy ageing is defined by WHO as “the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables well-being in older age”.  So, this should ideally be a life-long process. Although we are encouraged to focus on our health every day, we need to remember that the quality of our health today — which in turn determines our quality of life — is to a very large extent determined by how we have lived our lives in the past. And similarly our health and well-being in the years ahead is determined by the “healthiness” of our lifestyles today. 

The theme of this year’s International Day of Older Persons is “Digital Inclusion for All” because enabling all the world’s people to access digital technologies is a challenge that must be addressed if the world is to achieve its sustainable development goals. And these days there’s a significant intersection between healthy aging and digital technology — particularly when we think of the wonderful technology of the smartphone. It allows older persons to keep informed about local and world events, and to stay connected with loved ones — where we might otherwise have felt lonely, isolated and depressed. It gives us access to a number of health-related apps which can help us track, monitor and record so many aspects of our health from our exercise regime to our vital signs.  And so older persons must be encouraged and helped to embrace technology as a lifeline that can significantly enhance their healthy ageing.

We are gradually evolving into a society for all ages. But as we do so – and as we age – we want to be able to take full advantage of the wonderful opportunities that lie ahead – continuing to attend fun social events, whether in formal dress or in traditional attire. To be in a position to embrace those opportunities in the future, we need to embrace healthy ageing as a life-course process; and we need to lead healthy lives today so that we are in good health tomorrow. That is essentially what healthy aging is all about. That is the focus of the UN decade of Healthy Ageing. And that is what we all need to remember on this the first international day of older persons in the Decade of Healthy Ageing.

Sola Mahoney, the author of this article, is an advocate for older persons.