Recently, I’ve been reading more books and articles about how the future could turn out - things like where technology is today, what scientists are trying out/hoping it could do, and what these things could mean for our lifestyles in the coming decades.
(I thought Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari and The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross were mind blowing if you fancy a read, and I’m always looking for recommendations if you’ve got any suggestions on what to check out next).
Some of it sounds incredible - things like self driving cars and smart devices able to network, communicate and work together efficiently (the Internet of Things) in and around the home.
Some of it sounds scary - AI will overtake us in every way, possibly becoming malevolent overlords and ending the human race.
However, it’s all just thoughts and theories, and we won’t know until we get there.
The two things we can be certain of, as the trend has been going that way for decades and shows no signs of stopping, is that 1. we’re making technological advances (sometimes slowly, sometimes in leaps) and 2. we’re all living longer.
It’s not a surprise to hear people are getting old, but the rate is a little staggering. Already the life expectancy in the UK has increased from 71 in 1960, to 81 in 2015. This might not be a huge jump - but remember that’s just the average, there are plenty people living far longer than 81.
Japan has the oldest of folks, with current average life expectancy at 80 years for men and 87 years for women (84 years for general population). THE AVERAGE. And that’s only going to rise. Already about 25% of the Japanese population is 65 years or older, and with medical improvements that number is also likely to rise.
Now, while medical improvements can temporarily prevent us from passing on and help cure diseases, it isn’t anywhere near creating immortal humans. For a very specific reason.
WE GET OLD
Our cells keep dividing and we’re a “new person” every 7 years, but after a certain age the cells aren’t as strong as they once were. They’ve gotten wear and tear on a microscopic level from dividing and multiplying so many times over the decades, and this has a knock on effect on the bigger structures they are a part of (organs, bones, tissues).
We can slow this down with exercise and good nutrition, giving our cells the stimulation and building blocks they need to create as strong a structure as they can, but we still accumulate our own wear and tear over the years.
So took keep our bodies young, we need to keep our cells young - requiring fresh new cells to divide and multiply, or to replacing them with young ones. To stave off ever getting old, this means replacing EVERYTHING as we age, every last cell, which just isn’t feasible at this point. Yes, organ transplants are possible, but the risks of a long surgery recovery still weigh heavily on the elderly - because while they might have a new organ, everything else is still rather old.
A DIFFERENT PATH
There’s still the hope that they’ll figure out a way to do this or find a totally different way to reverse or halt the ageing process, but until then it looks like we’re just going to keep getting older.
Which isn’t all doom and gloom - while the medical world is working on that, the techno world is able to support us as we age. Already we have walking sticks, wheelchairs, mobility scooters, stairlifts, reclining/inclining beds, electronic sensors and alerts.
Soon there will be self driving cars, which will help the elderly get out more even if they’ve lost the ability to drive. Motorised prosthetics and exoskeletons to help worn out limbs move about like they used to. The Internet of Things all communicating with each other, so you don’t have to worry about individual appliances - just one voice commanded thing or ticking a list of preferences and it’ll do the rest.
These are of course not limited to the elderly, or even the disabled. Anyone can get a hold of a motorised scooter (for a fee) and it’s the same for electronics and future robotics. Everyone could eventually have access to fully “Smart Homes” with the Internet of Things, and jump into self driving cars or slap on exoskeletons to make walking to the shops easier.
The physical strain taken out of the equation, our bodies suffering less wear and tear and lasting longer. Even the mental strain, stress levels could drop (although probably not, there’s always something to go wrong) alleviating cognitive strain. Everything gets a little easier.
Like in WALL-E.
Yeah, the Disney Pixar film. Remember those humans?
Everything is basically done for them. They don’t have to walk or physically interact with anything beyond their screens. Tech takes care of it all. Bliss.
Nearly all physical movement is superfluous, why walk when you can glide?
NOT SO BLISS
The problem is, all physical movement has become superfluous. They’ve removed exertion, but this means they’ve also removed stimulus.
There’s no need for the body to adapt or get stronger, there’s nothing to adapt to - there’s nothing challenging. Why waste energy and resources on building stronger structures when they’re already strong enough? So the body doesn’t. Same with the mind, if you don’t challenge or use it then there’s no need to go to the effort of creating new neural links or become more efficient.
With the increased reliance on technology and not our own bodies, our own biology will atrophy and wither. Which isn’t a problem if you have the machine readily available - they can do the things you can’t. The number of things will just increase quicker.
How to prevent this biological wilting process? By using it. Give it stimulus that challenges it.
By using resistance or weighted exercises, we can strengthen our bones, tendons, ligaments and muscles. By using cardio or high intensity exercise, we can strengthen our cardiac system. It doesn’t have to be world record breaking, just enough that it’s a challenge and you need to work hard.
Do this throughout your life, and you’ll be able to slow down the ageing (slightly).
(Granted, there are diseases and genetic factors that can catch up to us, regardless of how active we are, but these are largely the luck of the genetic and environmental draw).
Our bone density will naturally start to erode as the decades wash over us, but having a higher starting point or continuing to work out with weights/resistance exercises (again, doesn’t have to be record breaking stuff, just a challenge to you and your body) will slow the process. This can be the difference between a broken bone and a bad bruise.
Even general exercise like hill walking, swimming or cycling all help keep our hearts and joints healthy, which could be the difference between living independently at 90, and living in a care home by 70.
It might sound a bit ridiculous, but working in the Royal Infirmary I saw plenty patients who came in with a broken hip - those who were less active, took a while to recover and had poor bone density, often aged 50-70; while the active ones, be it gym based, hillwalking, swimming or just regular walks about town and the country, all recovered much faster. Several were in their 80’s and 90’s, and still much sharper than me.
The message is if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. And with the greater life expectancy and tech available, there’s a very real chance we’ll lose it if we’re not careful.
The key is just to find something you enjoy that keeps you active, both physically and mentally. Lifting weights, working with bands/cables, cardio, hillwalking or dancing, it’s all moving and using your body. Same goes for your mind: puzzles, languages, new skills, reading and learning, it all adds up.
Do it. Use it.
BUT… DOES IT REALLY MATTER?
If we don’t use it, we’ll lose it. That’s a fact.
But there’s also an argument to be made that we’re not using it for a reason.
Not everyone enjoys training. Not everyone wants to walk for miles on end. Not everyone wants big muscles, or to beat training PB’s. Why work for years building a huge deadlift, when the only time you need to lift a big weight is in the gym. It’s irrelevant for modern life and survival. They just don’t need it. It’s a waste of time.
There's a bunch of additional mental health benefits to exercise, but if someone is doing just fine without them, are they really necessary?
And with tech on the horizon that takes care of the physical stuff, that’s just going to be plus and enhance their lives. Yeah, their bone density and muscles will atrophy, but they don’t need them anyway. They’re in the WALL-E chair. It takes care of everything.
At the end of the day, the decision is up to you. I don’t think it’s as black and white as “no tech vs all tech”, I know I use plenty machines and apps to help make things easier, taking the bus instead of walking, and using various apps and Google instead of sitting down and trying to figure something out for a few hours.
Instead, I think it’s about finding balance, what is the best mix for you.
For me, I want to always have a level of physical independence - I’m normally much too proud to ask for help, and can’t imagine this will change much as I grow into a grumpy old man - but I also appreciate that there’s plenty that I can’t and won’t be able to do on my own. So I’m happy keeping on being active for fun and to keep the body strong, but also relying on machines from time to time to experience more of the world around me. Even mentally, I enjoy reading and the odd puzzle (I’ve yet to get good at languages, but I’m working on it), but I also enjoy finding a piece of tech that can do handy and cool things for me (like mapping and documenting my runs, calculators, or a bus tracker so I don’t need to work out bus journeys).
At the end of the day, the choice of how much you challenge yourself is up to you. There are costs and benefits to both sides, but the choice ultimately lies with you. We can change our minds and pick up new habits at any time - there’s no reason you need to stick with your decision forever, and there’s no need to stick to a set ratio of “reliance vs independence” for the rest of time. What works for one scenario, might be a disaster for the other. Similarly, what works for one person, might not work for you.
As always, we’re individual and just need to find what works best for us, our bodies and our beliefs.
Just don’t leave it until the end and hope for a miracle.