Living a Long, Healthy Life: Part 1

Adult and Child Hands

What does the latest research tell us about living a long, healthy life? First, if you are reading this, the chances are good that you will! Second, there are simple actions you can take right now to make your life a happy one.

I learned this hopeful news at UC Berkeley’s Living Well in Retirement Conference, held May 22, 2018.  Keynote speakers, workshops, and resources ranged from an engaging folktale told by a master storyteller courtesy of Stagebridge, the performing arts school for older adults, to local chapters of the nationwide Village to Village Network which supports aging in place.  

Most fascinating for me, though, were two speakers. The first (and subject of this post) shared myth-busting data about health and longevity. The second described a 9-point framework for what we can do right now to age with health and resiliency. I'll cover that in Part 2.

Four Generations

We are living longer, and that's good news

“If you are attending this conference, chances are that you will live well into your 90’s.” This was the startling first line of keynote speaker Laura L. Carstensen’s address to the conference.  Carstensen is Founding Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity and author of  A Long Bright Future: Happiness, Health, and Financial Security in an Age of Increased Longevity.  Carstensen explained that the "supersized life spans” coming to the U.S. and other developed nations means that for the first time in human history, it will be common-place for 5 generations to be alive at the same time. The population triangle, narrowing to old age at the top point, is rapidly becoming a rectangle. The U.S. census anticipates over 1 million centenarians by 2050; pension planners are nervously anticipating more.  

Getting more years to life should be good news, right?  Yet many boomers dread old age, seeing it as a period of rapid decline and increasing irrelevance. Why is this? Popular media feeds the myth that old age equals decline. This distorts the abundance of more years into the "cost" of old age. We buy into that cheap view of what is possible.

This myth isn't fake news, but rather an incomplete picture. Society has confounded the problems of aging with the problems of lower economic status, and economic status is strongly correlated with education. Simply put, poorer people generally do not have college degrees. Poorer people experience more health problems throughout their life, leading to a sharper decline after 65.

The fact is, if we are lucky enough to have a college degree, our ability to stay active and engaged stays fairly even for decades after age 60.

Longevity requires a new metric

When I hit age 60, I noticed a big shift in how I viewed my age. Rather than looking at that impossible number of years behind me (60? really?), I started looking ahead at how many years were left. This makes sense, says Carstensen.  Fortunately, the chances are excellent that these decades will be good to us:

We will keep our smarts:  For people without dementia, our cognition stays even well into our 80’s, and our knowledge keeps growing.  Small declines in cognition speed are more than offset by knowledge and experience.

We will keep working: Today, 80% percent of 79-year-olds report that they are still working, for money or for free; half are still working at age 85.

Technology will help keep us healthy and active:  Technology advances are ubiquitous. See, for example, the Stanford shoe.

What are these extra years good for?

If you believe in evolution, as I do, then we need to ask the question: what are all these extra years good for? How do human beings benefit from growing older?  The answer may lie in research showing that generally, we become more compassionate as we age. Perhaps we oldsters are exactly what the world needs right now.  Carstensen envisions a “cavalry of compassionate seniors” bringing a badly-needed ethos of care and connection to civil society. I like that picture.

Let's start by practicing compassion for who we are now and who we are becoming.  

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