Longer lifespans: A coming crisis or reason to celebrate?
Ashton Applewhite is a Brooklyn-based activist and writer. Her latest book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, debunks many myths about late life.
Ashton Applewhite: The 20th century saw an unprecedented leap in human lifespan in the developed world. In America alone, the American lifespan increased by 30 years. That doesn't mean everyone lived 30 years longer. It was mainly a function of more of us surviving to adulthood. But we have gained an average of 10 healthy years in whatever stage of life I'm in, which we don't have a name for, because it's so new I'm 66. This is an incredible achievement, right? I mean, we should rejoice at this.
It is a remarkable achievement of political stability, of public health, in particular, of better medicine, lots of things. And yet, the way it is often treated, by the media in particular, is as a disaster. And partly this is because people click on disasters more than they click on 'Everyone Chugging Along Just Fine' or 'Interesting Demographic Phenomenon Happened'. The most common shorthand used for population aging is a gray tsunami, which conjures up a frankly terrifying version of this wave of old people poised to swamp the shores and suck all the social benefits, and all the good things that we want to leave to our kids, and our health care system, swamp them and suck all the good stuff out to sea. And that language is misleading and wrong.
It is like the alarmist language, if you think about it, used to describe other demographic threats, like the yellow peril, the red menace. Think about that. This just amps up our fears without a rational basis. The fact is that population aging in the United States is the best studied demographic phenomenon in history. We have known for 66 years, if not more, that the baby boom was coming along, that our parents had more children, that my children represent another mini baby boom. The question is, why have we not done more to prepare wisely for not just the challenge that this represents, but the massive opportunity?
And the answer is that we live in an ageist society. We live in a society that tends to frame aging as a problem, because if it's a problem we can be persuaded to do things to fix it. And if it's framed as an illness, and you often see aging just equated with debility and decline, whereas in fact it is also a period of enormous growth and opportunity. Because if aging is a disease, we can be sold stuff to cure it or to stop it. The only way to stop aging is to be dead. Aging is not a problem to be fixed or a disease to be cured. It is a natural, powerful, lifelong process on which we are embarked at the day we're born. It's not just something annoying old people do or celebrities do. And it is something we should celebrate.
- A huge segment of America's population — the Baby Boom generation — is aging and will live longer than any American generation in history.
- The story we read about in the news? Their drain on social services like Social Security and Medicare.
- But increased longevity is a cause for celebration, says Ashton Applewhite, not doom and gloom.
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Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.
- "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
- New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
- It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.
At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.
As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.
But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.
Just as sharp as the whippersnappers
To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.
First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.
The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.
The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.
An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.
How to ensure brain health in old age
While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."
To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.
Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.
For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.
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