As I grow older, I become more and more aware that the past truly is a foreign country. I grew up in a land where cars didn’t have seat belts, where asbestos was used in building products, where most buildings were un-insulated and where cigarettes were advertised in cinemas and on billboards. It was a place mistrustful of vegetables, except when boiled into submission, and so committed to the consumption of its own saturated-fat dairy products that the manufacturing of margarine was restricted by law – the Margarine Act of 1908 was only repealed in 1989.
It was a place where someone had had the bright idea that if you wanted to send the menfolk home to their wives tolerably sober, the best thing to do was to close the pubs at 6pm. The result: institutionalised binge drinking – the six o’clock swill, the pell mell rush for workers to drink as much beer as possible in the short period between the closing of the working day and those of the bars.
It was a place of crutches, wheelchairs, the iron lung and fear: the disease polio still periodically swept through New Zealand communities.
One by one, these things have changed, and along with them so has something else: life expectancy. According to the actuarial tables, when I was born my life expectancy was 67. Had I been a girl, it would have been 71. Today, a newborn boy can on average expect to reach 78, and a newborn girl to break 82. That bonus ten years of life – if we can be sure that it is healthy – is a prize beyond price and there is no reason why life expectancy should not continue to rise.
No, not all of this is the consequence of public health measures – antibiotics and growingly sophisticated medical treatments have played a part – but much of it is. We live longer because we live better and we subject ourselves to fewer risks and hazards. But in terms of what might be achieved, we are only partway there.
A good university is a living institution, constantly in the business of remaking itself to meet the challenges of its time. Since it was founded by Act of Parliament in 1964, Massey has scarcely paused to take breath. There have been new campuses, new colleges and a stream of new initiatives. Now Massey is to take another major step forward with the formation of a College of Health.
To some of you this may come as a surprise. True, Massey has had a nursing studies programme since the early 1970s and it was the first university in Australasia to award a PhD in nursing back in 1989, but it is only in comparatively recent times that Massey has gathered the critical mass to contemplate forming a new college.
It began with the founding of the Wellington-based Sleep/Wake Research Centre in 1998, followed in 2000 by the formation of the also-Wellington-based Centre for Public Health Research, and in 2002 the creation of the Auckland-based SHORE Centre and the Whariki Research Group.
In a four-year period, Massey gained or consolidated expertise in a variety of health-related realms. Think of the relationship between sleep and occupational risk; of the understanding of such things as the survival rates for cervical cancer and the mechanisms governing the development of asthma; of the vexed relationship between New Zealanders and alcohol and drugs; of how urban design promotes or dissuades us from exercising; and of how ethnic and social inequality exerts an influence on health and longevity.
Alongside nursing, these centres and groups will form core components of the new College, but so too will a less expected entity, the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Human Health. Massey’s extraordinary expertise in food, you might think, has far more to do with adding value to New Zealand’s key export sector or with laboratory science and engineering than with health.
Yet, looking forward, the grouping makes sense. Diet has always been known to be key to health. You are what you eat. Up until recent times, the drive was to ensure that the food we ate was free of diseases, pesticide residues and adulterants. It was about preventing illness. Now a transformational shift is taking place, from preventing illness to promoting wellness.
Think of Fonterra’s Anlene, a milk specially formulated for adults to help build strong bones, developed with the help of Massey’s Professor Marlena Kruger. Think of the work of Professor Bernard Brier, who has validated the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in enhancing carbohydrate and fat metabolism in an ageing population, and of Professors Moughan and Harjinder Singh, who have developed an emulsion-based micro-encapsulation technology, so that omega-3 fish oils can be added to a variety of foods without any unwanted smell and taste – for much as we want to consume what is good for us, there is always going to be a limited market for fish-flavoured treats.
Nurses and epidemiologists. Food scientists and sleep experts. Urban designers and exercise physiologists. The new College of Health will offer a multidisciplinary approach to a multidisciplinary set of challenges, and it will reach out to the wider health community – to Centres of Research Excellence, such as the Riddet Centre sited on Massey’s Manawatu campus; to medical schools and other universities; to district health boards; to local government; and to international organisations such as the World Health Organization, the World Bank and UNESCO.
For anyone who has looked at the numbers – the rising costs of medical care, the incidence of obesity and obesity-related conditions such as type 2 diabetes, or the projections for the greying profile of our population – the need for this new approach will be obvious. If we don’t act, the outlook is grim: an epidemic of chronic preventable illnesses, an overstretched health system that relies more and more on user-pays or rationing, and a vast waste of human happiness and potential.
And if we are successful? I imagine the year 2050. According to Department of Labour projections, the ratio of the population aged 65-plus to the population aged 20-64 has risen to 50 percent. 500,000 New Zealanders are over 80. In Auckland, Coldplay, returning for its fourth or fifth reunion tour, is playing in the new stadium down by the waterfront. Chris Martin takes to the stage. At a sprightly 73, he is younger than many in the audience, yet they are overwhelmingly trim and healthy.
He strikes up the opening chords of the song Clocks and, as one, the crowd rises easily to its feet and begins to dance.