A longer life or a better old age? The italians, science and the challenges of ageing

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The Italians believe that physical exercise and a healthy diet are the most important factors in growing old well. They want scientific research to come up with new drugs and therapies, but only one in every two Italians thinks it right to prolong life beyond its natural span.

Increasingly frequently, authoritative scientists claim that the battle against ageing and the prolonging of life are the next frontiers of biomedical research. At the same time, worries are increasingly expressed about the growing proportion of elderly people in the population, and calls are consequently made for revision of social and welfare policies. So it is of particular interest to analyse the opinions of Italians on these issues. How do they cope with ageing? What do they expect scientific research to achieve? Is it right to try to prolong life?

One finding is especially clear: taking regular exercise and eating sensibly are considered the most important factors in growing old well. Overall, almost one in every two Italians believes that physical activity is most important, and more than one in every three that a healthy diet is essential. One in every ten gives priority to having a wide variety of hobbies and interests. Interestingly, Italians set little store by drugs and cosmetic remedies against ageing. Finally, 4 per cent of them believe that there is nothing to be done about growing old.

The differences between the opinions of men and women are of especial interest: physical exercise is most important for men (56.2%), while women give top priority to a healthy diet. Women also attach more importance to actively pursuing interests and pastimes (11.4% compared to 8.7% among men) and – though at a generally low level – the use of drugs and beauty remedies.

The older Italians grow, the less they believe physical exercise to be important (from 57% among young people to 42.9% among the over-65s). It may be that, with advancing age, people are less willing to put up with the effort and difficulty of taking physical exercise. By contrast, diet grows increasingly important – probably because the ailments due to a poor diet increase with age – and so does fatalism with regard to old age: one over-65 in every ten Italians believes that nothing can be done about it. Finally to be noted is that importance of diet and keeping mentally active is more frequently expressed by better-educated Italians (almost double the number of high-school and university graduates believe that having plenty of interests and hobbies is the best way to grow old). Perhaps worrying, however, is the finding that almost one in every ten (9%) less educated Italians believes that there is nothing to be done about growing old.

What can – or better, what should – science do for the elderly? ‘Furnish drugs and therapies’ was the answer of almost three interviewees in every four. Find cures for the diseases typical of advanced age like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s (according to one in every two Italians) but also reduce the pain caused by diseases (23%). There was less insistence that technology should help the elderly with their everyday needs (mobility and household chores). Finally to be noted is that only one Italian in every ten believes that science should endeavour to prolong the life-span. A chance to live longer is mainly of interest to more educated Italians (15%). By contrast, pain-reducing drugs are almost twice as important for the less-educated. Probably influential here is the faith in the almost ‘miraculous’ healing power of drugs more widespread among less-educated Italians, but also the better quality of life (more interests, higher incomes) that makes more educated Italians more concerned with the possibility of extending the life-span.

One in every two Italians believes that science should try to prolong life in any case, given that this is a desire felt by all human beings. Interestingly, however, almost one in every two interviewees (46%) instead said that this goal should not be pursued, the reason most frequently adduced being that the natural limits of life should be respected. Only a minority thought that a society with a large number of elderly people would be overwhelmed by problems. An obvious finding was that the older the person the more s/he believes that science should try to prolong life (57% of over-65s). The opinion that the limits imposed by nature should be respected was much more frequently expressed by younger interviewees, while less than four in every ten elderly interviewees believed this to be true.

In general, old age is considered to be more a physical than a psychological issue, and consequently that it is best dealt with by taking physical exercise and following a healthy diet. Contrary to what is sometimes thought, science is not widely regarded as ‘miracle-working’, and indeed is treated with a certain pragmatism. More than prolongation of the life-span – though this was deemed legitimate by one interviewee in every two – Italians want research to combat certain diseases in particular, and pain in general.

However, there are numerous signals of a marked dualism in attitudes towards ageing. They should not be underestimated, because they may in the future have repercussions on social equity. A substantially ‘fatalistic’ attitude to the consequences of ageing is characteristic mainly of the less-educated section of the Italian population. Contrasting with this passive resignation is the more ‘proactive’ attitude shown by better-educated Italians, who are ready to act individually and exploit the opportunities offered by research to cope with, and in some cases combat, the ageing process.

This article was published by La Stampa’s TuttoScienzeTecnologia on the 29th of June 2005.

The survey was conducted by means of CATI-method telephone interviews with a sample of 1029 subjects, stratified by gender, age, and geographical area of residence, and representing the Italian population aged 15 and over.

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