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Man on laptopProfessor Lewis Wolpert (below) is a respected biologist, author and broadcaster and has spent most of his professional life studying the development of the embryo.

So when he reached the age of 81 he decided it was time he turned his attention to the other end of the life cycle and look at what it is like to grow old in the UK in the 21st century.

Lewis WolpertIn his new book, You’re Looking Very Well: The Surprising Nature of Getting Old, Professor Wolpert covers all aspects of ageing, from the importance of post offices in rural areas to the benefits of voluntary euthanasia.

While he doesn’t flinch from nailing his colours to the mast when it comes to assisted death and the dubious value of pills and potions claiming to hold back the years, Prof Wolpert finishes his book on a note of optimism:

“Please keep remembering that research worldwide has shown that we are least happy in our mid-40s and happiest in our late 70s, and even older.”

Nick Smurthwaite talks to Prof Wolpert about exercise, ageism, self help and assisted dying.

Q. What was the biggest surprise for you in writing the book?

I didn’t know a lot about ageing statistics when I started writing the book, so I was surprised when I found that older people in Britain were now outnumbering the younger generations and also just how many people now suffer from dementia.

Q. Could older people help themselves more?

If we tried to be more effective in relation to our own lives, yes I think we could. Other than myself, I have no experience of dealing with older people. I think it would be helpful to encourage people from an early age to make more effort to prepare themselves for it, and to learn to look after themselves.

Q. What importance do you place on exercise in the ageing process?

Oh, it is hugely important. I still play tennis, cycle and jog very slowly... walkers overtake me. The best you could say for my jogging is that both feet leave the ground. Exercise is absolutely crucial to me, having suffered from depression.

Q. Do you envisage choosing to end your life at a particular point?

I’m very keen on being able to choose the time when I die. I am totally in favour of euthanasia, and that people should be helped to die peacefully if and when they choose to. The one thing I wouldn’t want is a long debilitating illness. Any legislation that tries to prevent voluntary euthanasia is quite wicked in my opinion.

Q. Can you imagine living to 150?

No, I can’t imagine living that long. I do have a friend who is 106 who still plays the piano every day. I don’t think there is any evidence that science will be able to find ways of helping us to live to 150, and would anyone actually want to live that long? I rather doubt it.

Q. Do you foresee a time when science will eradicate dementia?

Like everyone else, I’m terrified of dementia, so I hope so, yes, but I think it is unlikely in my lifetime. I do my Sudoku puzzles every day and hope for the best. It's only when we understand dementia better that we’ll have a chance of doing something about it.

Q. What’s an appropriate response to ageism in public life?

If you have the chance I’d recommend attacking it on all fronts. Older people being discriminated against, is just terrible. We’ve got to persuade those who perpetrate discrimination that one day they too will be old. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to work into old age. I didn’t retire from my university until I was 75 and I still give occasional lectures.

Q. Do you welcome the abolition of the compulsory retirement age?

Yes, absolutely. I think people should be able to choose when they stop working. I miss not working with a group of colleagues.

Q. From a personal point of view, what are the pluses of being the age you are now?

I don’t have to travel into work. I can lie on my bed with my computer on my lap, talking to you. I don’t have to fill out grant applications or mark exam papers. I’m not under great pressure to publish more papers. I’m a lot more relaxed than I was when I was working.

Q. Has your depression got better or worse as you’ve aged?

Slightly better, I think. I still take my anti-depressants, but I haven’t had any real problems for a long time. It came on when I was 65 so it may have been connected to the prospect of retirement.

Q. Would it be helpful to society to hear more from the older generations in the public arena?

Yes I think so. It’s wonderful to see people like Bruce Forsyth and David Attenborough still as active and high profile as ever. The more role models there are the better.

Lewis Wolpert's book: You're Looking Very WellYou're Looking Very Well: The Surprising Nature of Getting Old by Lewis Wolpert is published by Faber & Faber.

Age UK's Disconnected Mind project carries out once-in-a-lifetime research into cognitive decline. 
Find out more about the Disconnected Mind project

Further information

For more information: Call Age UK Advice: 0800 678 1174