In the UK, as in other developed countries, many people now survive complex health conditions that were understood historically to be fatal conditions of early or mid-life. These improvements in longevity are due largely to a better understanding of disease processes, successive innovations in medical treatment, and changes in societal acceptance of ‘difference’. One example of these ‘new’ ageing populations is those with cystic fibrosis, where life expectancy has risen steadily from under one year when it was first described in the medical literature in 1938, to a predicted fifty years for those born in the early 21st
century. Not only does this condition, its treatment, and patient experience challenge the idea of a ‘natural’ life course, as successive interventions eradicate an otherwise inevitable early death, but they also destabilise conventional notions of ageing and old age, with for example young women experiencing urinary incontinence, osteoporosis and CF-related diabetes. Yet again, cystic fibrosis not only challenges societal notions of what is ‘normal’, with employment, relationships, and parenthood achievable for an increasing number of people with this still life-shortening condition and daily burden of care, but also what is achievable, for example further life extension and eradication of disease through personalised genetic-based medicine.
This paper seeks to understand further the ‘new’ ageing populations and their relevance to the natural, normal and pathological in the contemporary sociologies of ageing and health. It uses the case of living with cystic fibrosis in contemporary social life to critique the utility of a theory of ‘successful ageing’ from gerontological, biomedical, and psychosocial perspectives.