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The New Old

Jeanne Louise Calment, photo courtesy of the Washington Post

This article has been inspired by the lectures on longevity delivered during the fourth week of the annual Chautauqua festival.

When Jeanne Louise Calment died on the fourth of August 1997, she was 122 years young, perhaps the oldest human to ever grace the earth (but maybe not: see below [1].)

Individuals like Jeanne Calment have more and more company. A UN report of 2012 estimated that there were over three hundred thousand centenarians worldwide.This trend has serious wheels. At the end of the 20th century, the average life expectancy for Americans was 77. For someone born in 2000, it is now over 100.

The pattern is roughly similar In Western Europe. In Japan, the ageing effect is even more pronounced. The numbers in less-developed parts of the world lag behind but the overall trend is unmistakable. We are headed towards greater longevity world wide.

Overtaken by Developments?

The recent extensions in life expectancy have come quickly, so quickly that we tend to find them overwhelming. Typically, we think of the increase in the number of the elderly as a huge, perhaps impossible, burden on society, one for which there are no ready solutions.

An article that recently appeared in a mainstream newspaper in my native Quebec dealt with just this problem. The challenges the article addressed included the following:

  • growing demands on the capacity and budget of the health care system;

  • the creation of a new underclass of financially-strapped seniors, vulnerable because of the inadequacies of the public pension systems and/or individual failure to start saving young enough to support extended longevity;

  • an engrained attitude of ageism on the part of society as a whole but in particular on the part of employers who fail to appreciate the contribution that the elderly can make to their firm and the economy in general, and/or who neglect to develop personnel policies that facilitate their integration in the activities of their enterprise;

  • a rising cohort of elderly that live alone and socially isolated, and in consequence suffer psychologically;

  • an expanding population of older people worldwide that translates into a worsening drain on the world’s finite natural resources.

These are all serious issues that cannot be resolved easily.

But Can We Cope?

The answer is yes, but only if we apply the lessons that we have learned in dealing with the issue of ageing hitherto and acquire new insights in the process.

In the twentieth century, huge advances in life expectancy were made as result of a conscious effort by society to invest in policies targeting, for example,

  • a decrease in infant mortality,

  • a reduction in the impact of killer chronic diseases,

  • the enhanced cleanliness of air,

  • major improvements in sanitation (including policies as simple as improving garbage collection and disposal), and

  • the promotion of greater access to education of all kinds.

These efforts have been anything but perfect, but they cumulatively added some three additional decades of life over the course of the twentieth century in the developed world. There is no reason why we cannot add another three decades, and perhaps even more, to twenty-first century life expectancy - and there are very many good reasons why we should.

Life expectancy has been increased unevenly, however. So, in the United States ethnic and gender identity are indicators of greater and lesser longevity. Black women live longer that black men. White men live longer than black women. White women live longer than white men. As Amani Allen argued during her lecture at Chautauqua, the stresses generated by racism promote early aging among minorities. She observed that environmental factors can play a role as well. There are studies that correlate life expectancy with a zip code and its overall economic and security health.

So, an effective approach towards ageing also requires measures to ensure that society as a whole benefits. The alternative is a community that is divided by the extent to which various groups are advantaged or disadvantaged as a function of their access to factors that favour increasing and improving ageing. This is not a recipe for social peace.

The Advantages of Age

While ageing often tends to be seen as a negative phenomenon, the profile of the elderly is much more positive than tends to be normally assumed. Here are some examples.

  • The elderly can add to a society’s economic productivity and overall economic vitality.

  • The elderly are for the most part much healthier than normally assumed. Some eighty-year old persons have a mental and physical capacity similar to that of twenty-year persons.

  • The elderly are anything but freeloaders. They tend to play a significant role in the care and education of their grandchildren – and soon their great-grandchildren- and are often the key caregivers for other people of their age.

  • The elderly also tend to transfer more resources to younger generations than vice versa.

  • The elderly do not take away jobs from younger people. On the contrary, if integrated into working teams with younger cohorts, they can enhance their overall efficiency. This is in part because oldies tend to have a broader emotional experience. They are accordingly wiser, more prepared to listen to different views and more open to compromise.

The latter point is subject to some challenge, of course. In the UK, the elderly voted overwhelming for BREXIT. In the US, the elderly voted in their majority for Trump. I expect, however, that when the votes of the elderly are broken down by education, the political preferences of those with and without college education differed significantly.

How to empower the new elderly?

All this said, much more needs to be done. Changing the way society thinks about its ageing population and preparing it for a situation in which five and six generations of the same family share their lives is a challenge of historical proportions.

At the end of the day, it is in the political arena that the key debates on ageing will be waged and ultimately decided. But how this process will enfold will ultimately depend on society’s philosophical cum cultural take on longevity.

For me, the most transformative ideas that were served up by the experts at the Chautauqua lecture series on ageing revolved around the notion that we need to design a New Plan for Life, as proposed by Laura Carstensen of Stanford, or a Grand Act of Imagination, as advanced by Linda Fried of Columbia.

The assumption of both experts is that as life gathers more years, we need to have a vision of just what these incremental years can offer and entail. Society needs a vision that shows the way forward. Society needs to be conscious of a way forward for it to develop wings and take fight: without a vision, there can be no forward movement.

How long might we live?

Some 5000 years ago, the average life expectancy was 18. From the beginning to the end of the twentieth century, life expectancy increased in the US by a factor of three months for every calendar year.

If, as can be reasonably expected, the pace of technological change affecting longevity continues to accelerate, the increase over this and future centuries will prove to be even more significant. Within a very short period of history, humans have come to benefit from artificial limbs and organ transplants of all types. Ongoing advances in gene editing, nanotechnology and robotics could greatly extend our life expectancy.

This may not mean that we will live to be a 1000, as Aubrey de Grey a speaker in the TED series has proposed, but it could. De Grey challenges the notion that ageing is inevitable, arguing instead that it is a disease -- one that can be cured if it is approached as "an engineering problem." De Grey holds that the first millenarians have already been born.

Old age is also about faith and patience. In the book of Genesis, there is a story about a man called Methuselah, who lived to be 969 years old, the oldest person said to have ever walked upon the earth. Some people think that the number resulted from a translation error. Others believe that Methuselah’s age was a metaphor for God’s unparalleled patience in waiting for a subject to find the right path.

Whether this is true or not, it seems clear to me that as we live ever longer, we will need ever more to be sure that we are on a viable moral trajectory.

[1] Full disclosure 1: the WP article claimed that Calment had falsified her age by over twenty years. [2] Full disclosure 2: I am 72 years old and have a vested interest in propagating the optimism that underlies this piece.

#Jeanne Louise Calment #Amani Allen #Laura Carstensen #Linda Fried

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