An aging society also has benefits

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An aging society also has benefits

The average life expectancy in Korea reached 81.3 years in 2012, more than triple the span in 1903 and another step toward “homo hundred.” While longevity is a personal blessing, it leads to rising medical costs, prolonged national pension payouts and other government expenditures for the elderly. This problem will be magnified in Korea as it becomes the fastest-aging nation in the world over the next 15 years.

Variations in genetics, lifestyle and environmental factors have an effect on the rate at which the human body ages, making research and definitive explanations of aging especially difficult. Nevertheless, there are expectations that life extension science, also known as anti-aging medicine, together with lifestyle, chemistry and IT developments, will help mitigate the burdens faced by a graying nation. Research and technological developments so far sum up anti-aging progress in three areas: prevention, early care and the use of devices.

Prevention involves everyday habits and routines such as exercise. The latest hot idea in Korea for slowing aging is “hormesis.” It involves voluntarily exposing oneself to mild amounts of stress. That triggers biological responses that activate a person’s immune system. One of the biggest advantages is that injections and medical procedures are not needed.

Since being introduced in a TV program, intermittent fasting, a form of hormesis, has become very popular in Korea. It calls for alternating between normal eating and weekly or semiweekly fasting. The fasting supposedly stimulates the body’s metabolism and boosts the immune system. The positive impact of hormesis on anti-aging has been proven through testing on monkeys. After having their food intake reduced periodically by 30 percent over a period of 20 years, the spinal curvature of the test monkeys was less pronounced, their fur was richer and they had lower rates of death, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and atrophy of the brain. But as stress affects us in different ways, side effects are possible. Therefore, deviations must be studied in research on adequate stress levels.

Early care means taking steps when the initial signs of aging appear. Frailty, including weakening muscle strength, lowered energy levels, weight loss and deterioration of the senses are no longer considered inevitable with age. Instead they are being viewed more as quasi-disorders that should be aggressively countered. If left untreated, they may lead to chronic illnesses and even disabilities that can accelerate the aging process. In Korea, the frailty rate of senior citizens (those over 65 years of age) is 8.8 percent, slightly higher than that in most industrialized countries. Moreover, Koreans must take particular care because they have lower muscle strength on average than people in the West.

The use of devices refers to assistance to cope with losses or severe deterioration of motor skills and sensory functions. Initially developed for physical rehabilitation, assistive technology has now become a vital tool to help senior citizens regain full mobility. Traditional assistive technology such as hearing aids are stimulating higher value-added industries.

Expectations are also high for a recently commercialized exoskeleton, which helps compensate for loss of muscle strength. By wearing an exoskeleton, tasks such as lifting heavy objects become possible and mobility is increased, allowing for a more productive life. The technology is expected to spread more rapidly once prices fall and advances are made in battery life, weight and convenience.

In the past several decades, progress in maintaining the health of the elderly and in anti-aging research has come by leaps and bounds. For that reason, prior assumptions must be cast aside, and instead we must embrace the belief that all ailments can be prevented and treated. Furthermore, aging and the necessary care must be dealt with by society as a whole, to prepare for the “homo hundred” era.

Governments must accept that countermeasures to aging populations will determine the fate of the national economy; they must seriously consider fostering research into the science of aging and the technology to support that science. Aging is a combination of complex symptoms that influence the human race, lifestyles, the environment and other factors. Therefore, research in other countries cannot be copied intact, but must be modified and researched again, taking into consideration the unique characteristics of a country.

Similarly, companies should explore new business opportunities attached to anti-aging. There is an abundance of market needs because the desire to live a long, healthy life is universal. Surveys have shown that Koreans are willing to invest heavily in keeping themselves healthy throughout their lives.

To respond to the growing demand, the government and the private sector must join forces to respond to problems caused by aging and foster the anti-aging industry. New research into anti-aging and anti-aging technologies must be continuously monitored and more products and techniques that can act in synergy with others must be planned and developed.

*The author is a research fellow at the Samsung Economic Research Institute.

by Kang Chan-koo

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