Society should rethink how it views aging, says longevity expert

July 1, 2016

Photo credit: Jerry Naunheim Jr. / © CHA
Laura Carstensen


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.

Addressing attendees at the Catholic Health Assembly last month, the Stanford University professor of psychology and public policy explained that humans have added about 30 years to the average lifespan over the past century, whereas life expectancy had changed very little in all the prior millennia of human life. At the same time, fertility rates dropped about in half between 1900 and today. The result is a "top-heavy" population of older people, Carstensen said.

People rightly worry about strained social support systems and the challenge of stretching limited resources to care for an aging population, she said. When thinking about a greying population, many people envision throngs of elderly, unhappy with their life circumstances and declining in health and cognition. "People tend to think that everything gets worse as people age," she said. "But, the more we learn, the more we see the aging story is more nuanced than we thought."

Carstensen said that research has shown that older people are happier and more content than their younger counterparts, and they are more forgiving. Other research has shown that while cognitive processing speeds may decline as people age, elders' retention of knowledge increases, she said. "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.

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 life spans 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 the length of life has increased, 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 workweeks in order to create and enjoy leisure time throughout their lives, she said.


Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.