Aging in the New Millennium
WHAT IS AHEAD FOR US?
by Fred Warshofsky
As we enter the new millennium we
are also crossing a watershed in human history. For the first time the
likelihood exists that a child born in America today will live to see his
one-hundredth birthday. There is also a better than even chance that at least
one of his or her parents will achieve the Biblical three score and ten, and
perhaps four million of that group will become centenarians.
Many social policy analysts
consider the coming explosion of the elderly in America the equivalent of a new
tidal wave of immigrants, with the power to forever change the social and
cultural landscape. Consider that each day three thousand people turn
sixty-five, and only two thousand over that age die. The net is a thousand new
members of the elderly generation. In the next twenty years the sixty-five-plus
population in America will grow by 71 percent, more than twice the growth rate
of the general population. By the year 2020, one out of every six Americans will
be over sixty-five.
Genetics will play a large role
in determining just who will enter that select group. After all, if grandma
lived to a ripe old age, so might you. That at least has been the prevailing
wisdom. But in point of fact, lifestyle and location may play an even greater
role than genealogy in determining longevity. A recent study in The New England
Journal of Medicine states flat out that the United States may be the healthiest
place on earth for old people. The report found that Americans who reach age
eighty could expect to live about a year longer than the elderly in four other
industrialized countries. The results were totally unexpected, since the United
States trails many other countries in life expectancy measured from birth.
But those Americans who do make
it to old age, do as well as or better than elderly people anywhere. "It's
a surprise to us, and I think it will be a big surprise to the Europeans, who
always argued that they are doing so much better than the U.S.,'' says Dr.
Richard M. Suzman, head of the Office of the Demography of Aging at the National
Institute on Aging.
One probable explanation for
older Americans' longevity is the quality and availability of their health care.
"When people turn
sixty-five, we become a country with universal health care,'' notes Kenneth G.
Manton of Duke University, the study's principal author. "Other countries
have it from birth, but they cap expenses, and that translates into delays.''
Americans on Medicare get
virtually any care they need-new knees, coronary bypass surgery, transplants,
whatever-without long waits. Other countries hold down costs by limiting the
availability of expensive services and requiring patients to queue up, sometimes
for many months.
"Older people can tolerate
waits less well,'' Manton said. "Being incapacitated while waiting for
joint replacement surgery can have a disastrous effect on someone who is
Manton and fellow demographer
James W. Vaupel of Odense University in Denmark looked at death records of
people born between 1880 and 1894 in the United States, Sweden, France, England,
and Japan. The data offers the first reliable comparisons between countries.
The study found that American
women who turned eighty in 1987 were expected to live 9.1 more years, while men
were expected to live 7 more years. Life expectancies for eighty-year-old women
and men in Japan were 8.5 and 6.9 more years, respectively; France, 8.6 and 6.7;
Sweden, 8.3 and 6.5; and England, 8.1 and 6.2.
The researchers also calculated
the odds of surviving five more years at ages eighty, eighty-five, ninety, and
ninety-five. Americans consistently did best. For instance, an
eighty-five-year-old American woman has a 58 percent chance of living five more
years, compared with 53 percent in France, 52 percent in Japan, 51 percent in
England and 50 percent in Sweden.
When life expectancy is measured
from birth, the United States trails Japan, France and Sweden and is locked in a
virtual tie with England. Japanese women have the world's highest life
expectancy at 83. An American woman's life expectancy is 79.8.56
The other major factor is that a
generation that has devoted itself to eating right and keeping fit has a far
better chance of becoming centenarians than those who by circumstance or
decision eat poorly and get little or no exercise. Thus, longevity may well be
determined as much by our own desires as by our genealogy.
Given the fact that we are all
inevitably going to age, the question becomes less one of quantity than of
quality. How good will life be for those of us who hit the century mark and
beyond? Will we roller-blade along on our replacement hips and knees, our bones
and muscles strengthened by hormone and vitamin cocktails, our minds and
memories enlivened by Urdu lessons and games of virtual three-dimensional chess?
The idea is appealing, but still,
100 or 120 years is a long time to live. Even setting aside the enormous social
and economic problems facing a nation with one-third of its citizens on social
security and Medicare, will those who successfully meet the physical challenges
of old age enjoy their longer lives?
Getting older usually signifies
more aches, pains, memory problems, and other age-related discomforts. And these
problems will not go away despite our lengthening life spans. But that does not
necessarily signify a decline in the ability to enjoy life. Individual happiness
according to a study reported in the Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology found that as people get older, they become happier, not sadder.
Psychologist Daniel K. Mroczek, Ph.D., of Fordham University, and Fulbright
Scholar Christian M. Kolarz, B.S., of the University of Warsaw in Poland
examined the responses of 2,727 men and women age twenty-five to seventy-four
years old to a survey to find out how much a person's age, gender, marital
status, education, stress, health, and personality (levels of extroversion,
introversion, and neuroticism) affected their well-being.
"The older the person was,
the more he or she reported positive emotions like cheerfulness, life
satisfaction, and overall happiness within the past thirty days," wrote
Mroczek and Kolarz. "And surprisingly, the younger participants reported
more negative emotions, like feeling sad, nervous, hopeless, or worthless. We
found that age still had an affect even when the other factors (gender, marital
status, education, stress, health, or personality) were taken into account as
Another surprise turned up among
older men, especially the married ones, who reported being the happiest and
having the least amount of negative emotions. Older women also reported more
positive emotions than their younger counterparts. But age played no role among
the women in their reporting of negative emotions.
Those that were measured as the
happiest were not only older and male, but were also married and more
extroverted," said Dr. Mroczek. "We have seen this before in other
research on age and well-being which found that relationships played a major
role in determining the extent to which people gain greater regulation over
their emotions as they age. It is possible that men are able to learn how to
minimize negative emotions in their marriages.
"From our research,"
said the authors, "we have seen that older adults regulate their emotions
more effectively than younger or middle-aged adults. We can propose that older
individuals seem to be able to know, through their years of experience, what
kinds of external events increase or decrease their positive and negative
emotions.Therefore, they achieve a better 'emotional balance' by selecting
people and situations that will minimize negative and maximize positive
Amidst the flurry of studies and
testing the elderly have been subjected to over the last decade or so, one
single characteristic seems to typify those who are successful agers. Mental
toughness is the trait shared by virtually all centenarians. "Strong
personalities distinguish centenarians," says Leonard Poon, director of the
Centenarian Project at the University of Georgia, the longest ongoing study of
people one hundred and older in the nation. "They tend to be domineering.
They tend to be what we call suspicious. Essentially they would not easily
believe what you say. They want to verify what you say."
A deep and abiding spiritual
belief is another distinguishing characteristic. "Religiosity was found to
be an important factor in the lives of all centenarians," notes Poon. These
older adults, regardless of whether they are black or white, are all very
religious and it serves as a support system. We found this related to mental
health. We did not find much depression among our centenarians."
The future, like the past, will
be pretty much what we make it. But never before have we had the awesome, almost
God-like ability to virtually double the human life span. For the first time in
history control of the aging process lies in our own hands. Everything from
complicated genetic technology to simple exercise, constant intellectual
challenge, and a good diet can mean longer, healthier years. The only remaining
question is how many of us will take advantage of the miracle that is being
offered. For it will happen, and sooner rather than later.
From Stealing Time, The New Science of Aging, by Fred Warshofsky. Copyright © 1999 by Fred Warshofsky. Excerpted by arrangement with TV Books. $26. Available in local bookstores or call 800-242-7737 or click here.