Long life in the 21st Century
Over the last 100 years, life expectancy of humans has nearly doubled. Social scientists are looking at the effects of aging on the individual and society as a whole.
Goers: Dr. Laura Carstensen founded the Stanford Center on Longevity. For over 20 years, Carstensen has received funding from the National Institute on Aging for her research and recently spoke on the NIH main campus for the Matilda White Riley Lecture.
Carstensen: With this near doubling of life expectancy we now need to apply science and technology — medical science, social science — to solving the problems and challenges of people 50 and olderr. What we’ve really done so far in the history of science is to think about, attack, and solve problems of people 50 and younger. It’s really been all about solving acute diseases, improving infant health, reducing second heart attacks in middle aged people. We’ve really done a lot and come far there. We have a long way to go in the treatment of chronic diseases and conditions like Alzheimer’s disease that come on gradually and probably reflect some cumulative process that is taking place for decades.
Goers: Much of the focus of research looks at the problems of the aging mind such as poorer memory, degradation of reading comprehension, and more difficulties with multi-tasking and concentration. But Dr. Carstensen explains some of the advantages people gain as they age.
Carstensen: It turns out there are other aspects of cognitive and emotional function that actually improve with age and these are really very relatively recent discoveries that is people are better able to regulate how they feel, their feeling states, they are better at social relationships. Sometimes I think the slowing that comes with age may add to that. That is if you are talking about how quick does someone become enraged, well that probably slows down too. So there are some of those changes in emotional functioning that seem to improve, and changes in emotion also interface with changes in cognition, since much of what we do in day to day life involves both. So we do see some improvements. There are a number of people who are studying wisdom and it seems that wisdom, knowledge about life, being able to solve practical problems of everyday living improves, so a lot of what we think of as sort of being smart in life are involved processes that get better with age, not worse.
Goers: Due to the added years, Dr. Carstensen feel there needs to be changes as our population ages instead of just tacking all the additional years on to the end of our lives for leisure.
Carstensen: You know in my mind there could be nothing better than to double the length of time a species survives — for the species. What could be better than to have twice as long than your ancestors to live your life, to realize your goals, to be with the people you love and care about, to contribute, I mean this is terrific. There's nothing inherently wrong with longer lives, but there is something terribly wrong with adding years of life and not changing the way we live. So if we fail to change the way we live and continue to, say get all of our education by the time we are in our early 20s and then that's done, work like as hard as you can from your 20s to mid 60s and then now say you are going to have leisure for the first time ever by the way because you are working so hard earlier either studying or earning a living — then that’s not going to work.
Goers: For more information on aging, visit the NIA home page at nia.nih.gov. This is Elizabeth Goers, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.
About This Audio Report
Reporter: Joe Balintfy
Sound Bite: Dr. David Goldman
Topic: impulsivity, impulsive, impulse, gene, genetic variant, behavior