I recently attended an exciting and thought-provoking event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., called "Disrupt Aging: Implications of Living 100." AARP and Forbes put on the all-day conference where leading experts in the fields of health, tech, work and personal finance, education and policy gathered to share their thoughts on aging and its implications.
We were greeted with various colorful interactive displays. A bucket full of bright yellow balls beckoned with the question, "How does the prospect of a longer life make you feel?" We were to take one and deposit it into the response that resonated best with us. The choices: "I'm fearful," "I'm skeptical," "I'm surprised," "I'm hopeful" and "I'm excited."
The thought of living to 100 might have seemed far-fetched many years ago, when life expectancy was significantly lower than it is today. In 1900, if you reached 47 years old, you were just about done.
The advent of clean water caused infant mortality to decrease, as did widespread food pasteurization and methods of refrigeration, which improved both nutrition and food safety. In 1940, when penicillin became widely available, treatment for once-deadly infections like pneumonia, gonorrhea, blood poisoning and rheumatic fever was possible.
By 1950, life expectancy climbed to 68. The polio vaccine, greater access to higher education and new environmental policies that made our air and water cleaner and safer made living longer possible.
Since then, the rapid rise of technology and other medical and safety advances increased lifespans even more. Here's a mind-boggling fact: In countries aging the best, half of 10-year-olds today may live to 104. (Those countries include the female populations of Chile, Japan, New Zealand, Norway and the United States.)
To think that when Social Security was established in the late 1930s, there was no expectation that anyone would live long enough to collect it is both frightening and exciting.
I don't know about you, but as I've grown older, I'm coming to grips with the reality that I am up against aging. It never seemed like a reality when I was younger. You probably know what I mean—that feeling that aging happens to someone else and there's just no way you can picture it happening to you. Ridiculous and unrealistic and a totally futile thought, of course.
But as the years progress—and I'm so grateful that they do—I am a bit wiser and more realistic. My attitude toward aging? I aim to treat aging much as I do my job as a journalist. That means that I:
- Wake up looking forward to it
- Show up, ready and excited for the challenge
- Seek out the things I need to know
- Approach life with curiosity and then educate myself through reliable research
- Be prepared and organized and construct a plan, with the caveat that sometimes I need to be flexible and adjust when things veer off course
- Be fully engaged and enthusiastic
- Keep up with/be aware of the latest trends and advances
- Surround myself with positive, kind people
- Always develop my skills and strive to learn new ones
- Be compassionate and fair
In a nutshell (and you really cannot put aging in a nutshell—not yet, at least), the top 10 facts gleaned from my day-long immersion at the conference:
- A significant part of our population will live longer than expected.
- Attitude matters. Don't let ageist stereotypes become self-fulfilling prophecies! Important fact: Those who view aging positively tend to live longer. On the flip side, if you view aging negatively, you're more likely to end up in a hospital.
- Our goal should not necessarily be to live longer, but to live better and make the most of a longer life.
- Getting older doesn't mean that we have to stop learning. Our brain continues to rewire itself and allow us to learn new things. You can learn a lot at YouU (You University=learning based on your living experiences).
- Social connection and relationships are essential to living and aging well—emotionally, mentally and physically.
- We will likely face health challenges as we grow older, but there may not be as many as we think. That's why it's so important to be proactive with your health: routine chores like gardening, are recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a form of exercise that can boost your long-term health; running is protective to your learning and memory; meditation is an effective way of reducing stress.
- Optimism and thinking positively matter. They can guard against cognitive decline, as can school and work.
- Loneliness is a greater risk to your health than obesity.
- Small, daily stressors add up to harm your long-term mental health.
- You can get sufficient exercise by making your daily chores more vigorous.
Over the last century, life expectancy has just about doubled. And a longer lifespan gives you the opportunity to reinvent yourself, build new skills, embark on a new career and continue to evolve. That may be one reason why when asked, "How does the prospect of a longer life make you feel?" the majority of attendees chose "I'm hopeful."
If you knew you'd live to 100, what changes would you make to your life now?
(Experts and thought leaders driving the program included: Bea Arthur, founder and CEO of The Difference; Ann Curry, journalist; Dave Evans, author of Designing Your Life and cofounder of the Stanford Life Design Lab; Jeff Halvey, former Today Show correspondent and host of Workout from Within; JoAnn Jenkins, chief executive officer of AARP and author of Disrupt Aging; Rich Karlgaard, editor-at-large and global futurist, Forbes Media; Vivek H. Murthy, MD, 19th U.S. Surgeon General; Suze Orman, personal finance expert; Jonathan Stevens, AARP senior vice president, thought leadership and international; Cheryl Strayed, author and co-host of Dear Sugar Radio podcast; Debra Whitman, PhD, AARP's executive vice president and chief public policy officer; Cheryl Woodson, MD, reriatrician; and Fabio Viviani and Maria Font Trabocchi, both restaurateurs.)