The New Age of Aging

October 27, 2014

They flipped their wigs for the Beatles and the Stones. They ended the war in Vietnam. Now 78 million Baby Boomers who defined youth culture in their era are entering their golden years, and they’re poised to change the world again. But are we ready?

For aging experts like Dean Linda P. Fried and Dan Perry the answer is a resounding no. But that’s far from the end of the story. In a recent conversation at the Mailman School with journalist and filmmaker Perri Peltz, Fried and Perry shared some lesser-known facts that suggest opportunities for the country to prepare as the Woodstock Generation passes retirement age and beyond.

Left to Right: Perri Peltz, Linda P. Fried, and Dan Perry

The current mindset on aging, Fried noted at the October 22 event, is mired in mythology: we can’t afford to ramp up medical care; social programs will go bankrupt; younger people are being crowded out of wage-earning jobs. In short, old people are expensive.  

Most of these myths have little basis in fact, said Perry, founder of the DC-based Alliance for Aging Research. “If we can delay, even by a few years, the onset of age-related diseases and extend the ‘health-span’ within the finite lifespan, the savings to Medicare and freeing of resources for other social goods will be enormous.” A study he conducted found that the most expensive end-of-life care was for people in their 60s and early 70s, but less so for the very older, who often die without needing costly interventions. Its surprising conclusion: “The longer people live … the less expensive death would be.”

It’s a oft-repeated truth: we owe our longer lives are thanks in large part to public health. Advances like vaccines against infectious disease added 30 years over the last 100 years, dramatically reshaping the country’s demographics. By 2030, one in five Americans will be age 65 or older. Now scientists are busy looking for ways to make those added years healthy and disease-free.

We already know that exercise is one way to maintain health while aging. “Physical activity tunes up the body the way that you tune up a car” with benefits from glucose tolerance to energy-producing mitochondria, said Fried. “We need that at every age and stage.” But getting this message out can be a challenge in our youth-obsessed culture where older adults are often invisible. “Why is it that Nike is still focused on selling running shoes to teenagers and is not doing an advertising blitz on Americans in their 50s and 60s?” asked Perry. “It has to become cool … and people have to be able to make money off of it.”

Healthy older adults, many who live into their 80s and beyond could be valuable, and to not just to sports apparel companies. Fried observed that with the proliferation of “beanpole families” with one or two children per generation, grandparents take on an ever more central role, beneficial to young and old alike.

A study of Experience Corps, a program Fried created that pairs older adults and school children, showed cross-generational dividends. Children became better readers. Older adults felt that they were making a difference. What’s more, seniors’ scores improved on cognitive tests; neuroimaging revealed anatomical changes in brain areas associated with solving problems. This evidence demonstrates that in the right environment, older brains can adapt and grow. The adage “use it or lose it” is true even in later years, said Fried, which is reason for optimism. 

Moderator Peltz put it best when she suggested what may be needed is a “rebranding” of retirement and old age.

And this rebranding may already be underway. Nearly eight in ten Baby Boomers wants to continue working past age 65 as long as they’re able, noted Perry. Boomers are going back to school, volunteering, and defining aging on their own terms. Less rocking chair, more rock. “This is a new age of aging, and I think it’s a very positive thing.”