Alas, that spring vanish with the rose!
That youth’s sweet-scented manuscript should close!
The nightingale that in the branches sang,
Whither and whence flows again who knows!
Thus wrote Omar Khayyam in his Rubaiyat, glorifying the joys and delights experienced during youth. At no other time in history has this sentiment been perhaps more relevant than today! In every part of the world, youth, beauty and health are being considered as synonymous and hence valued as precious commodities.
The word ‘youth’ conjures up visions of happy and cheerful young people, who suck the marrow out of life, and whose cup of joy is filled to the brim. Television commercials and advertisements, in journals and newspapers, focus our attention on youthful feminine charms, as reflected in the beauty of long and red fingernails, glowing skin, chiseled features, and silken hair, of the female of the species, and the masculine strength as revealed in the muscular physique, of athletes and sportsmen. In fact, every product in the world ranging from cosmetics, and cars, to perfumes and clothes, has an accent on youth and beauty with a distinct sexual slant that demands the viewer’s attention. No wonder that in our youth-oriented societies the word ‘aged’ conjures up visions of unhappy and dependent old people withering away in nursing homes or hospitals.
But, in actual fact, the majority of aged people even in developed countries live in the community with their loved ones and not in institutional care, though most people are unable to get rid of the tendency to view with pessimism some of the undesirable characteristics of old age.
The population of old people has increased by leaps and bounds thanks to the progressive advances in medical technology and health care services. Life expectancy has increased, and a higher proportion of people are reaching old age; because of biological factors, female still outlive their male counterparts. It is expected that in another decade the number of old people alive, in every nation, would have increased enormously by leaps and bounds.
But ageing is something which commences very early in a person’s life. By the time a person reaches the late twenties, the process of ageing would have already begun and it continues until death. The physiological clocks which underlie the ageing process tick on relentlessly throughout our lives. It is true that medical science can prolong life. Modern cosmetics, and plastic surgery, can give a new sheen to a young girl’s skin, and shape of certain organs, but nothing known to us can yet prolong ‘youth’ despite claims to the contrary made by some people from time to time without any scientific basis. When it does come, old age is a time to slow down, a time to come to terms with one’s own physical limitations and disabilities. Brittle bones, heart disease, diabetes and arthritis are some of the most common diseases that afflict the elderly day in and day out. There is a common feeling of frustration and despair among elder people knowing that there is nothing that they can do to stop the inevitable ageing process in the human system. The study of ageing—gerontology—is still a fledgling science and so the causes and process of ageing are not yet fully understood. But even while science searches for the secrets of why our bodies age, medical researchers are trying to tackle the disabilities of old age from another direction.
In one of the most spectacular breakthroughs of recent times, scientists are using their knowledge of the laws of molecular biology to predict illnesses and disabilities before they actually appear. (Molecular biology and neurophysiology are the two major branches of biology which, among the natural and exact sciences, have now acquired as much importance as physics had acquired in the first half of the twentieth century). The technique involves unlocking the mysteries of human DNA ‘molecules‘, thereby enabling scientists to identify irregular genetic patterns which can indicate a particular potential weakness in a person. We are all only too familiar with a 90-year-old gentleman who claims that he smokes cigarettes every day, eats fast food three times a week but is fighting fit and has no heart diseases at all. So also we are familiar with some other people who appear to be extremely healthy, perform exercise regularly but actually look miserable and drop dead prematurely. It would be difficult to explain to the normal patient who visits a doctor’s clinic the reasons for these phenomena which should be regarded as exceptions.
The analysis of the DNA molecule is aimed at measuring the genetic component in the individual so that doctors can find out the factors that make people susceptible to particular diseases. Once doctors can obtain that information, they can do a simple test on an individual and assess whether he is at risk of heart disease or osteoporosis; they may then be able to recommend certain things he should do to prevent those diseases. Probably within the next decade, it will become commonplace to people to go along to their physician and get a routine blood test done; the analysis would look for certain factors that might reveal that the patient is at risk for a particular disease. This might start when an individual is quite young even in early childhood.
Though the study of molecular biology is still in its infancy, scientists expect that within the next ten years it will be a part of everyday life. Doctors feel that health care service for the aged will increasingly focus on the economic and social value of keeping older people active in the community. The basic principle and policy of the provision of health services for the aged in future would be aimed at providing support service, which enable the elderly persons to achieve and maintain the greatest possible degree of independence in the least restrictive environment. In order to meet the needs of the aged section of the community, services need to be provided which address the varied needs of this target group and train all those members of their families who provide significant amounts of care. Scientists are optimistic that by the year 2030 home-based care and preventive medicine based on the principles of molecular biology will be the norm rather than the exception. Though the so-called elixir of youth might still be beyond our grasp, modern medicine now offers us, this side of the grave, the best chance yet of enjoying good health and happiness well past the days of one’s youth, thanks to the triumphs of molecular biology.
In the meantime, till science achieves a major breakthrough in gerontology, it is believed that human lifespan cannot be pushed up beyond 115 even if all known diseases can be cured, by surgery or medicine. It is because of this biological limitation that claims of someone having lived beyond 115 years, seem to be grossly exaggerated. However as things stand now it is claimed that since the death of 117-year-old Chiyo Miyako of Japan on 22 July 2018, Kane Tanaka, also of Japan, born 2 January 1903 (age 118 years) is the oldest living person in the world whose age has been validated.
Gerontologists are of the view that nutritious food of a certain type, which the Japanese eat, a healthy lifestyle, free from anxiety and worry, exercise and good habits would contribute to longevity. In fact Japan has the greatest concentration of old people in the world. The crisis which Japan is facing is how to solve this problem, failing which the nation is doomed. Japan must find ways and means to achieve the incredible balancing out of the two factors – an increase in the population of young people without limiting the population of old people by resorting to immoral and unethical measures.