Over the last century, the average lifespan in this country has increased by 30 years. While it may seem like a good thing, a recent panel discussion—“The New Age of Aging”—raised the question “Are Longer Lives a Good Thing?”
The panel, presented by Columbia University, the Alliance for Aging Research and the MetLife Foundation, provided some interesting insights that I’ll share with you.
Why are we living longer?
There have been immense human and societal investments all over the world aimed at improving the health of children, keeping children from dying in infancy and childhood, keeping women from dying in childbirth and preventing infectious diseases. The extra years also came from investments in poverty alleviation and education and, more recently, investments in effective medical care.
What do we do with these extra years?
The old model of aging, according to Dan Perry, Founder of the Alliance for Aging Research in Washington, DC, looked something like this: School, work (or raising a family), retire, die. It was very static and staid and, to most of us, very unattractive. Now, 78% of baby boomers want to continue working after the age of 65.
Boomers change careers several times, go back to school later in life, transition to part-time work before fully retiring, volunteer throughout their lives, explore new fields for post-retirement fulfillment, travel and explore new things—at all stages of life. "This is part of the new age of aging—and it's very attractive," Perry says.
Boomers are pushing for things like a retirement track that may involve flexible hours, telecommuting, part-time work or job sharing. The biggest limiting factor, Perry says, will be physical and cognitive health as we age. If we can delay even by a few years the onset of the chronic diseases of aging—things like cancer, heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer's—then we can live these extra years to the fullest.
Can we live longer and healthier lives?
Yes. The linchpin to living a long and healthy life is to invest in our health now, according to Dr. Linda Fried, Dean of the Mailman School of Public Health of Columbia University. There may be more scientific breakthroughs down the road for preventing or curing chronic diseases, but there's already a lot we know and can do at the personal level. Preventive measures—like colonoscopies and breast exams—are a must.
There's also plenty of evidence that physical activity matters at every age and stage of life. "We simply have to move," Dr. Fried said. "Physical activity essentially tunes up the body the way you'd tune up a car." Activity keeps you strong and healthy in many ways, including improving glucose tolerance, lowering inflammation, affecting red blood cell counts and tuning up mitochondria for better energy production—something we need at every age and stage.
Mental activity is equally important. Brain imaging studies show that cognitive function improved after just six months in seniors who volunteered with Experience Corps, an organization that places senior volunteers in public schools, Dr. Fried said. Not only did the seniors benefit, but the students' academic performance and passion for learning also improved. That's just one example of how older people's skills, expertise, experience, patience and availability can be utilized by society.
How we can maximize this “third age” of life?
First, we need to adjust our attitudes. Many of us are not psychologically prepared for this third age. We keep recycling the dread we all have of getting old and dying. Dr. Fried urges us to recognize that we have options in how we look at aging and how we live it.
Think about how lucky grandchildren and great-grandchildren are when they get to spend time with their grandparents. As people live longer, more people will benefit from these intergenerational relationships.
Plus, older people are doing amazing things that were previously never imagined. We can look to famous people like former President Jimmy Carter and his humanitarian efforts and former President George H. Bush and his annual skydiving to know just how true this is.
What will you do with your third age? Please share your story in the comments.