Society should rethink how it views aging, says longevity expert

ORLANDO, Fla. — Significantly more people are living into old age today than at any other time in human history. This dramatic demographic shift is having a transformational impact on societal norms, retirement planning, allocation of resources and cultural expectations. While the aging of society has implications for health, disability and Social Security costs, longer lives can and should be viewed with optimism, according to assembly keynote speaker Laura Carstensen.


During a keynote presentation at the Catholic Health Assembly here on Monday, June 6, the Stanford University professor of psychology and public policy said that research has shown that older people are happier and more content than their younger counterparts, and they are more forgiving. "A world heavily weighted with people who are knowledgeable, emotionally even and grateful for life may be a new asset that we have never had in the history of the species, and one that we surely cannot afford to waste," Carstensen said. "Older adults are the only resource in the world that is actually growing."

She noted that cultural, scientific, technological and behavioral advances that occurred for the most part over the last century have produced the remarkable gains in longevity in the developed world and said lifespans likely will continue to lengthen. Carstensen said viewing the increasing years added to life as an opportunity rather than simply a challenge will help individuals and society "rethink this gift we've been handed."

She mused that while longevity increases the length of life, it is only old age that is extended. A siloed model of development that has become the norm in developed societies calls for education concentrated during childhood and young adulthood, a middle age spent working and raising a family, and an abundance of leisure time only after retirement. That model was forged when lifespans were half what they are today, she said.

Longer life spans may mean that people will need to work longer to support themselves in retirement, but they might also find it beneficial to continue their education throughout life, or to work shorter work weeks in order to create and enjoy leisure time throughout their lives, she said.