Active at age 80: advances in medicine and society allow revolution in longevity

SÃO PAULO — In 1940, the average life expectancy of Brazilians was 45.5 years. For it was precisely in that decade that the men and women who gave face to the revolution in which we live today were born: the octogenarians full of life. Represented in this article by personalities such as actors Rosamaria Murtinho, Mauro Mendonça, Renato Aragão, businessman Abílio Diniz and doctors Angelita Habr Gama and Joaquim Gama Rodrigues, they demonstrate that we are not only living longer, but also much better. Today’s octogenarians are active and live fully.

According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), in 2016 Brazil had 3.4 million elderly people over 80 years of age. Projections indicate that today there would be 4.2 million. And the number of octogenarians continues to grow. By 2060, it is believed that there will be 19 million.

Everyone wants a long life. But above all, everyone wants to live well. For the epidemiologist Alexandre Kalache, from the International Center for Longevity, in Rio, the elderly now have another role in society.

“We want to grow old not in the room, which inspires the word retirement, but in the front room. When I was born in 1950, there were 14 million people over 80 in the world. After 60, the person was already aged, was invisible, and it was exceptional to reach 80. In 2050, it will reach 388 million. Today, the fastest growing population group is those over 80. We are in the midst of a longevity revolution.

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Two factors were preponderant for this change: prevention and early detection of diseases. In the case of prevention, there was an awareness of what is good and what is bad. For example, 40 years ago, Brazil was a country of smokers, which managed to reverse this scenario. Vigitel, which carries out surveillance of risk and protection factors for chronic diseases by telephone survey, pointed out in the last survey that only 9.8% of Brazilians were smokers. The notion of what is healthy eating or the importance of physical activity has also grown.

“What gives me pleasure at 80 is doing a lot of physical exercise, reading, practicing gratitude and praying for a better future for the world,” says Renato Aragão, aged 86 Photo: Fabio Rocha / Agência O Globo
“What gives me pleasure at 80 is doing a lot of physical exercise, reading, practicing gratitude and praying for a better future for the world,” says Renato Aragão, aged 86 Photo: Fabio Rocha / Agência O Globo

Detecting the problems early was the key so that the chronic diseases associated with aging could be controlled.

“Today, powerful machines find a cancer still capable of being cured. Or a heart problem, with tubes inside the heart. Ultrasound, resonance and computed tomography exams were revolutionary. And there were treatment advances that were like science fiction. I was a medical student when it came to pacemakers, and today we have stents. The cataract was a problem, today the surgery is easy. Devices to prevent deafness are very modern. Furthermore, treatments have been developed to curb obesity, smoking, blood pressure, diabetes. The number of medications has also grown enormously – says Kalache.

What one tries to do is push diseases inherent to aging as late as possible. If it’s not possible to extend it, you have to control.

But despite the advances, there are challenges. On the scientific side, perhaps one of the biggest is Alzheimer’s. On the social front, the difference between rich and poor, as stated by geriatrician Maísa Kairalla, coordinator of the outpatient care transition clinic of Geriatrics and Gerontology at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp):

— Social inequality, which was devastating in the pandemic, shows how people age differently. Life expectancy in the world during this period decreased by three years. Getting old is no longer easy because it is still difficult to take the bus, get the medicine.

  “I always say that aging is a certainty, aging well is a choice.  And for that, you have to start preparing well beforehand”, says businessman Abílio Diniz, 84 Photo: disclosure
“I always say that aging is a certainty, aging well is a choice. And for that, you have to start preparing well beforehand”, says businessman Abílio Diniz, 84 Photo: disclosure

super elderly

To age well, you need to prepare yourself, not only physically, but also economically and emotionally.

— Genetics counts less for longevity, only 25% to 30%. Who makes the difference is us. And it’s never too late to prepare, doing physical activity, saving resources, creating social bonds, family and friends. Aging cannot be a problem, a person has to be active, whether working, traveling, dating or taking care of grandchildren. To grow old well, you need to have physical and psychological resilience, adapt to it,” says Kalache, who concludes: “And have the will to live, have purpose.

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About this will to live, the anthropologist Mirian Goldenberg has just released the book “The invention of a beautiful old age” (ed. Record). According to her, people over 80 years old who are lucid, healthy and active are called “super elderly”.

— These people manage to reach this stage with health, projects, joy in living, lucidity, friendships, and a lot of learning. They are super elderly because they exceed expectations for their age, many are better off than much younger people. What is different about them? They value the present time, they don’t complain about the past, they don’t think much about the future, they don’t talk about death. They have a love for life that I don’t find in other generations. They know that the most precious thing is not having millions of clicks, earning money, getting thin, it’s the present time – she says.

“My enthusiasm is unshakable.  The practice of medicine is my ideal in life and there is always a lot to do”, says 88-year-old physician Angelita Habr-Gama.  Her husband, Joaquim Gama Rodrigues, 87, adds: “I always look to the near future and I have the privilege of being able to socialize more with family and friends” Photo: Edilson Dantas / Agência O Globo
“My enthusiasm is unshakable. The practice of medicine is my ideal in life and there is always a lot to do”, says 88-year-old physician Angelita Habr-Gama. Her husband, Joaquim Gama Rodrigues, 87, adds: “I always look to the near future and I have the privilege of being able to socialize more with family and friends” Photo: Edilson Dantas / Agência O Globo

Another aspect of these people’s personality is curiosity and openness to knowledge. Goldenberg follows up on a group of about 30 elderly people and says that when the pandemic started last year, the impact was very great:

— The greatest value for them is autonomy, freedom, being able to go to the supermarket, meet friends, go to the gym. And, all of a sudden, they lost it all. The first two months were horrific, but their learning and adapting process is enviable. If they used to walk in the square, now they walk indoors, if they used to meet friends, now they talk through networks, by phone, video call, lives. They don’t think about what they couldn’t do, they think: what can I do? This is beautiful.

Those who are not yet 80 and are wondering whether or not they have a personality like this should know that it is possible to learn and, in the future, be happy at this stage of life. Goldenberg says that the happiness curve was studied by economists in 80 countries and shows that, after the age of 50, it tends to grow.

“We hit the rock bottom of happiness at 45 and then the curve goes up. People start to value the present time, do an emotional cleaning, stop comparing themselves with other people, invest in what they have built that is good and positive: family, projects, friends. They develop a freer relationship with their body and appearance, which women up to 50 years of age are worried about. They mostly say “I’ve never been so free, I’ve never been so happy. It’s the first time in my life that I can be myself”. This is the most powerful speech I hear from older people.