South Africa may be ageing as a society – but we can live better, longer


What do Olympian Wayde van Niekerk’s spritely coach, Tannie Ans and theatre legend Dr John Kani, have in common with actor Jackie Chan and media mogul Oprah Winfrey

They’re all 65-years and older. Can you believe it?  

It goes to show how many among our generation of retirees are not as “elderly” as we might think. They are vivacious, active and contribute to society in effective ways.  Of course this is not true for everyone of this age. But it could be encouraged.

The good news is that we will see more and more of our inspiring older generation in the next few decades. World Health Organisation statistics tell us that the world’s population over 60 years will nearly double from 12% to 22% by 2050.

This matters now, because by 2050, 80% of older people will be living in low- and middle-income countries — that’s us in South Africa.  

South Africa is officially an ageing society

An ageing society is defined as one with more than 7% of the population who are aged 65 or older. A population with more than 14% is an aged society, and a population with more than 20% is defined as a super-ageing society.  

This puts us at a mid-level. Where countries such as China and Russia are super-agers, our ratios are closer to those of Ghana and India. Based on estimates made by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs in 2015, South Africa has the highest percentage of older people in Africa at 8.7%. This is likely to increase to 17.4% by 2050 because of decreasing fertility rates and increasing longevity.  

Although ageing well represents a triumph of medical, social and economic advances over disease, those who don’t age well pose a tremendous challenge for our society. The link between ageing and chronic disease puts pressure on a health system already overburdened by communicable diseases.

This means one thing: we must ensure that those in advanced age groups who continue to contribute to society economically, or those who will have to lean on society, are in good health.

The aim is not only to live longer … but to live better and to live it up!    

The path to good health 

I have had the privilege of witnessing how leading a healthy lifestyle can add to one’s years and allow one to age gracefully. My mother is my role model. She retired this year at the age of 65, but because of the lifestyle she leads, she is still in good health. 

I’ve reflected on why. I grew up watching my mom indulge in vegetables, legumes and fruit. I used to associate that with poverty — not knowing about the benefits of a plant-based diet. I am now conscious of what I eat and, without intending to, realise that I am eating similarly to how my mum always did.

With a bit more time on her hands, my mom remains physically active. She participates in 10km and 21km runs! To say she is an inspiration is an understatement.

Although many South Africans may never retire comfortably (just 6% of the population can afford to do so for various reasons), anyone can address their health needs.  

As a medical doctor and a child of an ageing parent, I know that risk factors can be reduced or prevented with early detection and management.

Simple measures can make a big difference

Screening and early detection, discouraging tobacco use, encouraging a healthy diet and fitness, addressing brain health and mental wellbeing, can make a marked difference in the quality of life of our older generation.

It’s interesting to note how a little can go so far. A vision test, for example, can address health risks associated with eyesight as well as detect unmanaged conditions of lifestyle, such as diabetes or hypertension. 

They can identify cataracts, glaucoma, degeneration of the eye, and whether or not chronic conditions are causing complications. 

All it takes is an annual eye exam that usually lasts about half an hour. 

Geriatricians can assess “falls risk” to mitigate accidents. Hearing tests also form part of this screening.

Similarly, a healthy diet, regular physical activity, maintaining a satisfactory body weight and avoiding tobacco use can delay or prevent the onset of Type 2 diabetes, another health concern in our society.

And although smoking or lack of exercise can have long-term effects, changing course is beneficial at any age. 

The risk of premature death actually decreases by 50% when people stop smoking at age 60 to 75 years.

Moving more, safely, means that men and women who exercise have lower rates of death compared to less active individuals. These benefits are observed in adults in the older age range, with or without existing non-communicable diseases.

Reading, playing cards or board games, doing crossword or sudoku puzzles also help maintain one’s mental health, as do socialising and hobbies such as gardening, art and crafts.

Ageing well is a composite of maintaining health, functional capabilities and life purpose. How can we live lives that are as healthy, meaningful and vital as my mum, Tannie Ans or the Oprah Winfrey’s of the world?

By making small changes. 

Are we willing to make these changes? We should be and for those who have loved ones in this category, perhaps it is time to take a proactive approach. 

Dr Mosima Mabunda is head of wellness at Discovery Vitality

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Mosima Mabunda
Dr Mosima Mabunda is head of wellness at Discovery Vitality

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