CHICAGO - The good news: We're living longer than ever. The bad news: We're living longer than ever.
In an oversimplified way, that was the message from Laura Carstensen, Ph.D., director of Stanford University's Center on Longevity, in her remarks to this year's Aging in America Conference here, sponsored by the American Society on Aging.
Carstensen, a well-known researcher who delights in debunking stereotypes of older adults, had less of the expected "older is better" happy talk, and more of the "it's time to deal with how our culture has changed" message.
Thanks to advances in science and technology, she said, we have added more years to our life expectancy in the past century than in all of human evolution to this point. It's a success that's viewed with a mixture of pride, doubt and - if your job is calculating risk for a health insurance company - dread.
Consider that in the mid-1800s, most people lived to their mid-30s. By the 20th century, that had jumped to 77, and today it's 78. "Four, five, maybe six generations of the same family can be alive at the same time today," Carstensen said.
This has happened in part because we've dedicated ourselves to keeping our babies alive. In 1900, 100 infants died for every 1,000 live births, and 30 percent died before their first birthday. Yet by the end of the century, the mortality rate had plummeted to about seven deaths per 1,000 births - a drop of more than 90 percent.
We achieved this with things like vaccinations, purified water, pasteurized milk, systemic collection of garbage, public education and child labor laws, said Carstensen. But the fact that we've focused so much on the young for the past century has left us with a society built for young users.
"Parks, highways, train stations, hospitals, even hotels," she said - including the enormous, multilevel Hyatt Regency where the conference was being held - "are tailored to those with considerable physical endurance."
People often blame ageism for this, she said, but it's also because "this long life is new to us." We've never lived this long before, and we're just now figuring out we need to make some major adjustments.
So what's needed next? Things that will improve the quality of the long life we've achieved:
- Finding a cure for Alzheimer's.
- Finding a cure for osteoporosis.
- Motivating people to change their lifestyle to prevent chronic disease.
- Developing technology to compensate for mental and physical limitations.
- Encouraging a healthy, engaged over-65 population.
- Figuring out "what a good death looks like at the end of a long, satisfying life."
Obviously, Carstensen isn't telling us anything we don't know or don't already wish for. She's just bugging us - meaning: science, technology, the government, businesses - to get working on it faster.
After all, we aren't getting any younger.