Longevity – Optimum Aging

A paradigm shift in thinking about aging and disease is in progress. It’s called The Longevity Dividend Initiative (LDI), and if successful it will have a profound influence all of us. Launched in 2006 by gerontologist Jay Olshansky in alliance with many organizations and people around the world, it supports anti-aging research by seeking commitments from governments around the world. “Longevity dividend” refers to the money that pension and health systems worldwide will save the future if we can all stay healthier longer, and if many more of us could be Optimum Agers, enjoying healthy, extended lives.

Life spans are longer now than they were in the 1960s or 1970s, and not just in the United States. During the last 120 years, modern science, healthcare and other factors have added an average of three decades to the lives of most people on the planet. Since the Ô60s we’ve added about seven years to the average life span. These additional years have been healthy ones for many, and this in turn contributes to economic growth, something that wasn’t imagined when dramatic population aging first began a few decades ago.

Senior citizens are and will continue to be an experienced and valuable but often underutilized workforce. Olshansky argues that if more seniors stay engaged with their careers and remain in good health during these new extra years so they are a blessing rather than a curse, families would avoid costly and exhausting elder care, and the economy at all levels would benefit, too. Like cell phones and computers, the LDI will change us in ways that can only be imagined today. This new reality has been growing for some time: the first issue of the Journal of Gerontology in 1946 proclaimed “Giving life to years, not just years to life” on the cover.

How people live their newly added years is both big business and raises big questions like how to calculate pension costs, social security benefits and how long workers can stay in the workforce. A week doesn’t go by without a news story involving the heavy costs longevity can bring. Our body’s very metabolism comes with a cost. Wear and tear, accumulations of toxins and environmental effects at the cellular and molecular levels can eventually do us in. Increasing medical costs coupled with rapid increases in the chronic, disabling and fatal diseases has resulted in our current healthcare crisis. But there is hope. By changing our lifestyle behaviors we can profoundly and positively reshape the future. Behavioral risk factors such as smoking, obesity, poor diet and lack of exercise, increase the risk of costly chronic health conditions. In other words, there is plenty we can do to ensure a healthy future.

But wait a darned second. Can this be true? We have the solution? It’s true, and we do. Prevention is better than cure. We need to move away from the medical geriatrics approach, which is to wait until the damage has started, translate the pathology into a diagnoses, and address the pathology directly through a treatment plan or pharmaceutical approach. In other words, take a pill. Admittedly, this approach does have the advantage that you can see what it is you’re aiming at. You can see your enemy and name your enemy, so to speak. But all too often it is a case of too little, too late.

A better strategy is what is called “Enlightened Therapies” or “Rejuvenation Therapies,” depending on who you ask. The Baby Boomer multitudes have made these therapies into a multi-billion dollar business. Whether it’s a conventional YMCA family membership for regular exercise, or a more radical (and often dangerous) sweat-lodge cleansing in the desert, the options are limitless. These therapies can be applied multiple times and can repair damage that occurred before the therapies were even developed, thus helping to extend longevity.

What might we accomplish as a society if, with the help of elected representatives, we aggressively fund research into ways to slow aging and thereby increase the general level of health? Today many scientists, health advocates, public health experts, and academics are pursuing the extension of healthy life, or Optimum Aging. We all should be part of this effort. The possible rewards for doing so are incalculable, while the effects of not participating are regrettably predictable. In the age of rapid dissemination of information, we can not only quickly learn exactly what is taking place, we can often participate and influence the outcome. The Longevity Dividend Initiative is an effort worth making.

Robin Avery is a gerontologist, consultant and developer/operator of assisted living communities with a Master’s Degree in Gerontology and Long Term Care Management from Naropa University. Robin can be reached at ravy2003 @ msn.comd.

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