A 'longevity success story': Canada's growing 85-plus group makes us wonder what the key is to healthy aging

Social isolation and loneliness takes years off your life, says Laura Tamblyn Watts, founder, president and CEO of CanAge, a national seniors’ advocacy organization.

Robin Roberts 7 minute read May 13, 2022
happy older couple dancing

Canadians are living longer and more healthily than ever. GETTY

Most older people attribute their longevity to a healthy lifestyle, including good diet and lots of exercise. The health care industry has also been emphasizing that for decades. Then there’s Kane Tanaka, who held the title of world’s oldest human when she died last month at 119. She loved eating chocolate and drinking pop.

But she also ate a lot of fish and vegetables, worked until she was 103, and kept her brain sharp with board games and math problems — advice also emphasized by the health care industry (well, not the working to 103, necessarily).

According to the 2021 census, Canadians are living longer and more healthily than ever, despite the occasional pop and chocolate. Previous census numbers estimated that one in five people would be over the age of 65 by about 2030. “We got there by 2021,” says Laura Tamblyn Watts, founder, president and CEO of national seniors’ advocacy organization CanAge.

“The 85-plus population is one of the most rapidly growing populations in Canada [a 12 per cent increase from 2016]. It’s a longevity success story,” says Watts, who attributes that story to healthier lifestyles, including less smoking, more exercise and better vaccines.

Dr. Roger Wong, clinical professor in geriatric medicine at UBC’s Faculty of Medicine, says the number of seniors over 85 will triple over the next 30 years, which has “multiple implications for society and the health system, particularly in the area of dementia.”

Social isolation is as bad as smoking

Despite promising, ongoing research into causes, diagnosis and treatment, he notes that we are still far away from finding a cure. In the meantime, however, he advises everyone to engage in physical activity — not just older adults or those with dementia. Research has shown exercise has many benefits, including on preserving memory, he says.  Socialization is also important, particularly for older people — something that decreased significantly during the pandemic, negatively impacting physical and mental health.

“Social isolation and loneliness is as bad for your body as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” says Watts. “It also can take up to eight years off your life. It doesn’t just affect your mental health; it affects every part of your body. When you’re depressed and alone and scared your body moves into a kind of hibernation and you frankly wither emotionally and physically.”

Some older people combine in-person socializing with online, connecting with friends and family through email and FaceTime. “When you’re engaged with people, your brain starts firing in different ways, [it] rejuvenates you,” says Watts.

Interacting with people from different generations is also important.

“You may be living to 85 or 90, but your friends may not be. Or they may not be living as well or healthily as you are,” she says. “We are social and inter- generational beings. It’s only in the last 100 years that we’ve parsed people off in these narrow age segments. It’s not how we used to live and it’s mostly not good for us.”

Moving keeps you young

Most seniors understand the importance of exercise, on both their physical and mental health. But only one in five gets the recommended 150 minutes of activity a week.

Dr. Liza Stathokostas, the research director for Active Aging Canada, says there are a variety of reasons for that.

Younger people say they’re not motivated, or they don’t have time. Older people have the time and the motivation, most are just not sure how to start, if they’ll have the ability, confidence and supports.

“It’s a population that did not grow up with the fitness craze,” she says. “[So], how do you pick it up as an older adult?”

The important step is the first one. There are in-person classes at seniors’ centres and local gyms, as well as online classes, which flourished during the worst of the pandemic. There are also dance classes and pool aerobics at community centres, and then there’s plain old walking.

“There’s a perception that as you get older, there’s a higher chance of getting injured,” says Stathokostas. “But it’s not really because of age itself; it’s doing too much too soon, or not [having] proper form. If you haven’t been active before, start slowly. There’s research with 80- and 90-year-olds who have heart disease [and benefited]. So there’s no reason anyone can’t get physically active with proper supervision and modification.”

And proper supervision seems to be a key concern, says Stathokostas, who talked to 500 older adults about the issue. “They want to go somewhere where [the instructors] know what they’re doing in terms of working with seniors, whether it be a personal trainer or group exercise.”

Laura Surman is well-acquainted with those concerns. She started taking fitness classes in her 20s, and liked it so much she became an instructor. At 68, she says she could be retired, but loves her job as program coordinator at Active Adult Centre of Mississauga.

“Keeping people moving is my whole goal,” she says, noting the oldest participant at the Centre is 104. “The first step is the hardest, getting into the habit of doing something.”

Surman says it’s best to find something you like, because you’re more likely to stick with it.

“Dancing is so good for the body,” she says. “It works the brain, you have to remember the routines, the music is good for your soul, every time your foot goes down you’re building your bones, you have to do your turns so it’s good for your balance, it’s cardiovascular — it keeps everything going in the body.”

She also stresses that the social aspect of the classes is just as important as the physical health benefits: “The camaraderie is so good. They really want to help each other, and they really love making friends.”

Kamal Parmar, who pre-COVID went to the gym regularly for cardio and resistance training and now walks and does online exercise classes, agrees the social component is vital. “Man is a social animal,” she says. “We need to connect to share our joys and sorrows, identify with each other’s ups and downs. It’s good for the brain and calms the system, because the brain and the body are connected.”

As a writer and Nanaimo’s poet laureate, Parmar, 69, understands the importance of a sharp brain, and the role exercise and being social plays.

“It’s good for mental agility, for focus, and quality of life,” she says. “If my attitude is to look at aging as ‘growing old’, then my life will be wasted. If I look at aging as getting wiser and better, and the future as ‘golden years,’ then life is well-lived.”

Stathokostas agrees. “Part of physical literacy is knowing that being active is good for you, valuing it and acting on it.”

Positions, Policies, Programs

Being age-literate means having the best information for staying fit, healthy and in our own homes. But there can be too much information, and Watts says weeding through it all, including what we read online, can be a challenge.

“Not everyone understands falls, for instance,” she says. “If a healthy older person falls and breaks a hip, their chances of dying within 12 months is about 20 per cent. Within 18 months, it’s about 20 to 40 per cent. These are acute injuries that can change an otherwise healthy trajectory. So people need to make a plan.”

To do that, Watts recommends a book called Options Open, by policy expert and voice for seniors Sue Lantz, which offers a five-strategy framework for making choices around health, housing, transportation, social networks, caregiving teams and how to access other resources.

The challenge, though, is wrangling funding for these resources, as well as long-term care and home care. “The narrative around long-term care is finally getting attention, and there’s broad consensus that robust home care is the way to go,” says Watts. “What we haven’t really seen is significant dollars into that.”

She notes that, for dementia care alone, Ontario’s recent budget allocated $5 million per year for three years — the Alzheimer Society had asked for $500 million a year.

“In B.C., it’s the same situation,” she says. “Seniors are essentially missing [from the] budget. They do have more acute care hubs that are being set up but the doctor shortage already is so profound and that’s without the age wave coming. Living longer [means] we have to make those public and private dollars stretch and we’re barely beginning to think about it.

“The good news is we’re living better and more healthily, we’re more connected, more digitally literate and we’re more interested in positive aging than we ever have been. The bad news is we need to make sure we and politicians are pushing in the right direction. Because our systems are barely holding together now and they simply won’t be unless we make some real investments soon.”

Robin Roberts is a Vancouver-based writer.


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