Dec. 10 2018

You’re Getting Older, Now What?

A new course titled “(Y)our Longer Life,” invites students to examine the meaning of longevity gains, both for themselves for society at large. Co-taught by renowned aging expert Dean Linda P. Fried and Epidemiology professor Dana March, it is offered to both master’s students in public health and undergrads at Columbia College and Barnard. Classes take place on the Morningside campus in the Spring 2019 semester.

“Someone who is age 18 or 24 can reasonably expect to live another six decades. At the time when they are older adults, they will be members of the largest age group,” says Dean Fried, who is teaching a Columbia Mailman course for the first time. “In this class, they will consider the choices necessary to live healthy and meaningful lives into their 70s, 80s, and beyond.”

The course examines longevity as a public health success, challenge, and opportunity. Thanks largely to public health measures such as sanitation and vaccinations, our lives have dramatically lengthened over the last century. Yet the way we understand aging has not kept pace, as cultural expectations and social policies promote outdated notions of old age, such as myths about the inevitable physical decline to incentives around retirement. Students wishing to register may reference course code PUBH GU4100. 

“We want students to take a fresh look at aging, from human biology to societal norms,” says March, the associate dean for Educational Initiatives and director of Undergraduate Programs. “Together we will explore how a society optimized for an aging population stands to benefit all.”

The instructors will ask students to consider aging from a life-course perspective: how our environment at early life stages influences our health and wellbeing at older ages, as well as demographic trends, including the recent reversals in life expectancy among middle-aged white Americans. John Rowe, the Julius B. Richmond Professor of Health Policy and Aging, and Kavita Sivaramakrishnan, acting director of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center, are among the guest lecturers.

Throughout the semester, students will write a prescription for their own longer lives, for themselves and for society, adding elements that might include diet, exercise, social connections—and not least of all, education. “Creating opportunities for lifelong learning is one of the most important ways we can promote healthy aging,” notes March. 

A New Special Concentration

In recent years, enrollment in undergraduate public health classes on Columbia’s Morningside campus has grown dramatically. From 2014 to 2018, the number of students taking the “Introduction to Public Health” course began with 29 students and will have 80 this fall.  Similar increases in scale have occurred in other public health courses, including the “Social History of American Public Health” and “Fundamentals of Global Health.” The trend extends nationally, with the number of undergraduate public health programs more than doubling since 2007, according to a study by the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health. 

Based on this growing demand, and overwhelmingly positive feedback from Columbia undergraduates on their public health courses, last spring, Columbia College approved a Special Concentration in Public Health which students can elect to complete along with a Major. Columbia Mailman is only the second Columbia professional school to formalize its undergraduate course offerings this way.

Undergraduates in the new Public Health Special Concentration will be required to take five core courses, along with three electives. All courses present public health from a liberal arts frame, offering perspectives valuable to students in any number of Columbia College majors, from Economics to Environmental Biology, History to Human Rights, Data Science to Statistics, Urban Studies to Sustainable Development, and more.  

“We’re interested in educating a global citizenry about the interrelationships among population health and civil society,” says March. “No matter what Columbia and Barnard undergraduates go on to do, a population health lens is, in many ways, not only useful but essential.”