The Longevity Revolution


NARRATOR: COPING WITH THE LOSS
OF LOVED ONES, AS WELL AS WITH THE INEVITABILITY OF ONE’S OWN
EVENTUAL DEATH IS A NATURAL PART OF THE AGING PROCESS. FOR A LONG TIME THOUGH, THAT
PROCESS WASN’T GIVEN MUCH ATTENTION IN MEDICAL AND
ACADEMIC CIRCLES, BECAUSE THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE WHO ACTUALLY
LIVED TO BE OLD WAS RELATIVELY SMALL. IN THE LAST 100 YEARS HOWEVER,
THE NUMBER OF ELDERLY ADULTS HAS INCREASED ENORMOUSLY. SOMETHING EXPERTS HAVE CALLED
THE LONGEVITY REVOLUTION. WELL, THE LONGEVITY REVOLUTION
REFERS TO THE FACT THAT LIFE EXPECTANCY– THAT IS, THE AVERAGE LENGTH OF
LIFE FOR AMERICAN CITIZENS– HAS NEARLY DOUBLED SINCE 1900. IN 1900, THE AVERAGE
LIFE EXPECTANCY WAS RIGHT AT 47 YEARS. NOW, OBVIOUSLY, MANY PEOPLE
LIVE BEYOND 47 YEARS. THAT’S THE AVERAGE. CURRENTLY, LIFE EXPECTANCY IS
ABOUT 78 YEARS FOR MALES AND ABOUT 82 YEARS FOR FEMALES. THAT’S A TREMENDOUS INCREASE,
JUST AN INCREDIBLE INCREASE. PERSONALLY, I THINK THAT’S
PROBABLY THE GREATEST ACCOMPLISHMENT OF THE
20TH CENTURY. MORE WAS ADDED TO LIFE
EXPECTANCY IN THAT HUNDRED YEAR PERIOD THAN WAS ADDED
FROM THE ROMAN DAYS UP TILL 1900. THE PROPORTION OF OLDER PEOPLE
IS GOING UP SO QUICKLY, AND ALSO FEWER CHILDREN
ARE BEING BORN. INSTEAD OF HAVING SIX TO EIGHT
CHILDREN IN A FAMILY, YOU HAVE TWO CHILDREN, OR BARELY
TWO CHILDREN. SO PEOPLE ARE LIVING LONGER. THERE ARE FEWER CHILDREN. THIS MEANS THAT OLDER PEOPLE
ARE BECOMING AN INCREASING PERCENT OF THE POPULATION. NARRATOR: BUT WHILE THE SIZE
OF AMERICA’S ELDERLY POPULATION MAY BE CHANGING,
AMERICAN ATTITUDES ABOUT SENIORS OFTEN REMAINED MIRED
IN A MORASS OF OUTDATED STEREOTYPES. THERE ARE LOTS OF STEREOTYPES
ABOUT OLDER ADULTS THAT SUGGEST THAT AS WE GET OLDER,
OUR COGNITION IS WORSE AND WE CAN’T REMEMBER THINGS. WE CAN INTERACT WITH PEOPLE
IN A SOCIAL MANNER. AND IN FACT, MOST OF
THOSE ARE MYTHS. WE DO HAVE ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE
AND OTHER DEMENTIAS WHICH CAUSE REAL PROBLEMS
FOR PEOPLE. BUT THOSE ARE DISEASES, AND
THEY’RE LIMITED TO ONLY ABOUT 5% OF THE ELDERLY. SO WE TAKE A LITTLE LONGER
AS WE GROW OLDER TO LEARN NEW THINGS. BUT IN TERMS OF OUR INTELLECTUAL
CAPABILITIES AND OUR PERSONALITIES, WE
STAY PRETTY STABLE. ONE OF THE BEST WAYS I KNOW OF
MAKING SENSE OF STEREOTYPES, WHERE THEY’RE WRONG AND WHERE
THEY’RE RIGHT, IS THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN WHAT
WE CALL THE YOUNG OLD AND THE OLD OLD. OLD AGE NOW, IF ONE USES THE
CONVENTIONAL DEFINING POINT OF AGE 65, IS A VERY LONG
PERIOD OF TIME. IT’S OFTEN 30 YEARS OR MORE. AND REALLY, THOSE 30 YEARS
ENCOMPASS A LOT OF CHANGE, DEVELOPMENT, GROWTH, DECLINE,
AND SO FORTH. STEREOTYPES OF THE ELDERLY AS
POOR, LONELY, POOR HEALTH, ISOLATED HAVE VERY LITTLE
TRUTH IN GENERAL. BUT THEY CERTAINLY HAVE
VIRTUALLY NO TRUTH FOR THE YOUNG OLD. AND THE STEREOTYPES ARE VERY
DAMAGING BECAUSE THEY KEEP US FROM RECOGNIZING THAT THESE
PEOPLE ARE PRODUCTIVE. NARRATOR: PRODUCTIVITY CAN TAKE
MANY FORMS, FROM MAKING A DIFFERENCE AT WORK, TO FORGING
A NEW RELATIONSHIP WITH A GRANDCHILD. I THINK IT IS THE ASSOCIATION
WITH A YOUNGER GENERATION IN THEIR FAMILY THAT GIVES
THEM THIS– JUST BEING AROUND YOUNGER PEOPLE
AND BEING ABLE TO SHARE THEIR LIFE ENRICHES
THEIR LIFE. AND I BELIEVE THAT IS A VERY
LARGE PART OF THIS. WHEN A MAN BECOMES A
GRANDFATHER, HE’S OFTEN MUCH MORE NURTURING TO HIS
GRANDCHILDREN THAN HE EVER WAS WITH HIS OWN CHILDREN. SO THAT’S A REAL POSITIVE
CHANGE THAT I SEE IN GETTING OLDER. WE’VE DONE A LOT OF STUDIES
IN IOWA ON GRANDPARENTING. AND WE HAD GRANDPARENTS WHO
WOULD SIT DOWN AND WRITE POETRY WITH THEIR
GRANDDAUGHTERS. AND THE GRANDDAUGHTER WOULD BE
IN COLLEGE AND THEY WOULD SEND THEIR POETRY BACK AND
FORTH BY EMAIL. AND THEY SHARED A GREAT DEAL. THEY WOULD SEND LETTERS
TO EACH OTHER. THIS HAPPENED OVER AND OVER
AGAIN AS WE STUDIED GRANDPARENTING. SO IT’S AN ENRICHING EXPERIENCE
FROM BOTH SIDES. NARRATOR: AND WITH THE AVERAGE
LIFE EXPECTANCY IN THE US EDGING TOWARDS 80, IT’S AN
EXPERIENCE THAT CAN OFTEN ENDURE FOR MANY MORE YEARS
THAN WAS ONCE THE CASE. IF YOU LOOK AT PHOTOGRAPHS OF
47-YEAR-OLDS IN 1900, AND LOOK NOW AT PEOPLE WHO ARE
78 YEARS OF AGE, THEY LOOK VERY SIMILAR. AND THEY’RE PROBABLY
AS ROBUST. YOU HAVE TO REMEMBER, IT WASN’T
THAT LONG AGO WHEN THEY CALLED PNEUMONIA THE
OLD MAN’S FRIEND. BUT THE OLD MAN WAS 50, AND
WE HAVE CHANGED A LOT. AND SO THE PEOPLE WHO ARE 78
ARE MUCH MORE FUNCTIONAL, ALERT, ALIVE, AND DOERS THAN
WERE THE 47 YEARS OLD PROBABLY A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. NARRATOR: THERE ARE A NUMBER
OF FACTORS THAT HAVE CONTRIBUTED TO THE INCREASE
IN LONGEVITY IN THE US. AMONG THE MOST IMPORTANT
ARE BROAD ADVANCES IN PUBLIC HEALTH. JUST GETTING RID OF A LOT
OF EPIDEMICS THAT USED TO KILL PEOPLE. I THINK CERTAINLY EASE OF
GETTING QUALITY FOOD, VITAMINS, INOCULATIONS,
ANTIBIOTICS. AND STILL, PEOPLE WILL DIE AT 25
OF PNEUMONIA AS THEY DID IN THE PAST, BUT THERE ARE
MANY PEOPLE WHO WON’T.

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