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Successful Aging: New ways to think about longevity


Last week, G.L. reported being stressed as she began her retirement after 60 years of working. She had given little thought to the non-financial aspects of her retirement as she pondered the number of years she had ahead of her.

This week, let’s look at this subject of longevity in a larger context, based on the work of Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. In 2018 Carstensen and her colleagues found a new way to think about longevity with the launching of an initiative called The New Map of Life. It is based on demographers’ predictions that in the U.S. about half of those who are five years old today can expect to live to age 100.


Although aging is often associated with a deficit consisting of losses in health, mobility, financial security and independence, the New Map of Life asks us to make a major “mind shift.” That is to think about the contributions of older adults and how we can optimize each stage of life that will lead to healthy longevity.

This new map of life is guided by 10 principles. Here are the first five:


Make the most of the 100-year opportunity: The New Map of Life acknowledges the losses that come with aging and at the same time recognizes the economic and social contributions of older adults “to get a true accounting of net costs and benefits.” Older adults contribute over $8 trillion to the American economy. About 2.5 million grandparents are raising grandchildren and in 2017 older adults contributed almost 2 billion hours of volunteer service with an economic value of $454 billion.


Invest in future centenarians: We need to invest in each life stage of future centenarians so the benefits can compound over time. Key years are between birth and kindergarten, a time for children to acquire the cognitive, emotional and social skills that will enable them to lead healthy active lives that will lead to a healthy active older age.

Align our health span to our life span: Life expectancy in the US is 76.4 years, that’s the number of years lived. Health span is 66 years, that’s the number of years lived without a disability, meaning living without limitations that are physical, sensory, emotional, or cognitive that interfere with our social roles or ability to care for ourselves. Aligning life span with health span is a critical goal that requires investments in public health, again at every life stage.


Know the future of aging will be amazing: The five-year-olds of today will experience aging differently from today’s older adults. They will benefit from emerging technologies and advances in medicine. New fields such as geroscience will transform how we age, seeking ways to “reprogram the genetic, molecular and cellular mechanisms” that cause us to be at risk for certain diseases just because of age. In manipulating these mechanisms, we may be able to circumvent or delay age-related diseases.


Life transitions are ongoing: The linear trajectory of education, work and then retirement will not be the trajectory of the future and often is not the usual pathway today. We see indications of the future with current patterns of paid work, some time out for informal education or recreation, intergenerational partnerships, opportunities for mentorship and more. We have “returnships,” which are full-time paid internships for adults who have been out of the workforce for at least a couple of years. Then there is “funemployment, a time when you are unemployed, not looking for a job and are enjoying the new freedom with leisure activities.


The policies and investments we undertake today will determine how younger people will age and what will occur in their extra 30 years of life. Yet advances are occurring daily that can affect us in small ways relevant to our health span and longevity. It may be time to consider our own aging, both physical and mental, and our lifestyles that enhance or deter the normal aging process. Then there is our attitude towards the number of years ahead of us, those extra years and how we will spend them. Hopefully, the new map of life will expand our thinking about the possibilities and the gift of longevity.


Next week, we’ll highlight the remaining five guiding principles of the New Map of Life.


Stay well and know that random acts of kindness count.


Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity

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