The New Problem of Old Age: What to Do with an Extra 30 Years

by Jordan Mueller in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences, MPH ’16

 

“The easy answer is… no,” replied Dean Linda P. Fried, MD, MPH, when asked if the world was ready for an unprecedented demographic increase in the amount of people living past the age of 65 years. The dean of the Mailman School was direct, but not pessimistic. The New Age of Aging: Are Longer Lives a Good Thing? was a conversational forum on Wednesday October 22, and a space for Dean Fried and Daniel Perry, founder of The Alliance for Aging Research, to explore exciting approaches for an aging population, with the discussion being hosted by SiriusXM news host and documentary filmmaker, Perri Peltz, MPH ‘84. The forum called for new methods on an old issue that can no longer be ignored.

A geriatrician and epidemiologist, Dean Fried is a respected authority in the field of aging. Her expertise gives her objectivity to raise an often unasked question: How do we ensure that the 30 years of life added by public health and medical advances in the last century are quality gains for the individual and society? Mr. Perry, Ms. Peltz, and Dean Fried all agreed that the body of research on aging must be utilized to create effective methods to capitalize the new “third age of life.”

Discussion

Mr. Perry, who held staff positions on Capitol Hill for over a dozen years, stressed the importance of recognizing aging as an entity in and of itself, rather than a collection of individual processes. He explained that the processes of aging begin at the cellular level, giving science the power to identify and delay musculoskeletal deficits, loss of neurological function, and a host of other ailments associated with the accumulation of birthdays. Where lowering the impact of infectious disease was the great accomplishment of previous generations of public health, Mr. Perry identified that delaying the negative aspects of aging is a new impetus of public health. Those in public health are tasked with building a lengthy “healthspan” within a person’s inevitably finite lifespan.

With the Baby Boomers living to 100 and birth rates showing no signs of slowing, are we doomed for intergenerational tension? The panel took this dilemma in stride. By ensuring that health lasts into old age, Dean Fried explained that we could take advantage of a “social capital that we have never had before.” Co-founder of Experience Corps, a community-based program that puts senior volunteers to work in public schools, Dean Fried emphasized the need to create social “win-win situations” among the elderly and younger generations. Programs like Experience Corps increase the brain function of seniors, which has been shown to delay the onset of dementia-related disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, which, according to Mr. Perry, currently costs America $250 billion annually. These programs also enrich American youth with attributes that only veterans of life can bring: experience, skills, patience, and a palpable desire to leave the world a better place than they found it.

In addressing a final question from an audience member, Dean Fried and Mr. Perry faced the unavoidable topic of the final days of life. Despite agreeing that “70 is the new 50” in affluent parts of the world, the panelists acknowledged that care during the final days of life must also be a foundational component of aging research and policy.

Our need to study aging is a modern luxury. In 2014, we are finding solutions to health problems of 75-year-olds, when barely 100 years ago, people were struggling to hit 40. Much of this increase in the lifespan can be attributed to public health. At our school, however, the solutions to the issues of aging or chronic disease are not treated as luxuries. They are addressed as a core duty. Through their discussion, Dean Fried and Mr. Perry prepared the Mailman Community to explore the new frontiers and the inevitability of aging and its associated challenges, to constantly push the boundaries of public health, and not rest satisfied with the gains that have been made. There is more work to be done.

Watch the full discussion below:

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