How old would you like to live, assuming your health is reasonably good? How does 80 years sound? When you are 25, 80 years of life sounds like an ample amount of time because it is so far removed from the active life you live. But when you are 65, 80 years old doesn't seem like you have much time left.
Now ask yourself the same question but assume your health is poor. Imagine that you are 45 years old and have a chronic disease such as rheumatoid arthritis. Your joints are inflamed and beginning to become disfigured. You can't climb stairs, open jars or perform routine tasks without pain. In other words, the quality of your life is significantly less than if you weren't suffering from a chronic disease. How long would you like to live assuming your condition will worsen as you age?
Aging and chronic disease
Some chronic disease can be perceived as part of the aging process. Our body, which includes our immune system, simply is not as resilient or hearty as when we were young. The accrued consequences of poor lifestyle habits such as smoking, unhealthy diets, inactivity, stress, and others often begin manifesting in late middle age and especially in the later years. This shows up in diagnoses such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, emphysema, and a host of other conditions. These diseases are an accepted part of American life. But are they inevitable? Or have we just resigned ourselves of their inevitability because so many people encounter these and other health problems?
Yet, some of the most obvious changes associated with aging are inevitable. It is simply the body going through its developmental process. The most obvious changes are the physical ones. Hair grows thinner, turns gray and gets coarser. The skin changes texture, and loses its elasticity and moistness and gathers spot pigmentation. Some of the subcutaneous fat and muscle bulk built up during earlier adulthood begins to decrease; this decrease, coupled with the loss of elasticity of the skin, produces skin folds and wrinkling.
In addition to our changes in appearance, our sensory abilities such as hearing, sight, taste and smell also change with age. Hearing can become less acute, sight blurs, the sense of smell and taste can lessen. Each requires the older person to compensate for these changes. Recent studies have also shown a strong link between sensory and cognitive functioning in aging. For example, a person whose memory ability has declined with age is more likely to have impaired hearing as well. This does not imply direct causation, but there is a connection between these abilities.
Yet despite these declines, our older population as a whole is generally healthier than any previous generation. And life spans can be expected to increase in the coming decades. Demographers project that by the year 2080 the average life expectancy for men will be 94 and for women 100.
What we're learning about aging
But to get back to my earlier question: Is aging as we know it, with many of its chronic diseases the inevitable state each person must face? Medical science is discovering some fascinating insights about the aging process that are already challenging long-held assumptions about the physical and mental decline associated with aging. For instance, as researchers study Alzheimer's it appears that those who remain more mentally active through any number of activities (reading, taking courses, doing crossword puzzles, etc.) have less risk of dementia than those who are not engaged in regular mental activity. Or consider exercise, which has long been recognized as having great rewards, especially for older adults to maintain muscle strength and reduce the risk of falls by restoring coordination and balance. In addition, physical activity lowers the risk of developing diabetes, osteoporosis, colon cancer, breast cancer, and depression. Harvard researchers conducted a study over a 26-year period of over 17,000 healthy males and found that vigorous exercise increased longevity.
One last example concerns the role of stress and aging. Research has shown a strong correlation between chronic stress and premature aging. When we continually turn on the stress response in the course of daily living, the perpetual infusion of hormones, glucose and other biochemical reactions begins to take its toll on the body, creating a vulnerability that need not be there.
So, in my opinion, we can either view the aging process as an inevitable loss of physical and mental capabilities (similar to how we currently joke about aging) or we can take a proactive perspective and realize that there is much that we can do to slow the aging of the body and mind, improve the quality of life in the later years and perhaps even avoid many of the chronic diseases that currently plague our older Americans. But if we expect the latter to become the dominant perspective in future decades, we as the younger generation are going to have to make some radical lifestyle changes in the way we currently live our lives.