Are older people getting younger? (1996) | THINK TANK

Are older people getting younger? (1996) | THINK TANK


Ben Wattenberg: Hello. I’m Ben Wattenberg. We all age every minute of every day. More and more of us live into old age. Is this the golden age of aging, or is there
a down side? Joining us to discuss the matter are Betty
Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique” and, more recently, “The Fountain of Age”;
Dr. Richard Sprott, director of the Biology of Aging, National Institute on Aging; David
Gutmann, professor of psychiatry and education at Northwestern University and author of “Reclaimed
Powers: Men and Women in Later Life”; and Dr. Elizabeth Cobbs, director, Division of
Aging Studies and Services, George Washington University Medical Center. The topic before this house: Are older people
getting younger? This week on “Think Tank.” “Grow old along with me, the best is yet
to be.” So wrote Robert Browning more than 100 years
ago. Was he right? Well, to start, we all do age. How? Here are two important theories. First, the Hayflick limit. The body’s cells replace themselves only
50 or so times before they stop and die, but why? Perhaps because of telomeres, tiny knots at
the ends of our chromosomes which shorten each time a cell divides. When telomeres are gone, cells die — a process
called cell senescence. Second, free radicals. As our cells produce energy, they create highly
reactive by-products called free radicals, which attack our cells and destroy our DNA. Whatever the cause of aging, Americans are
living longer than ever before. In 1900, the average life expectancy for an
adult at age 20 was 63 years. By 1992, thanks to improved sanitation and
better medical care, it was 77 years. Americans are not just living longer. They are healthier — physically for sure
and possibly psychologically as well. Item: The percentage of older Americans with
disabilities is dropping. Today only 23 percent of people over 65 suffer
chronic disability. Item: Recent studies show that the mental
abilities of people who are not afflicted by diseases like Alzheimer’s do not decline
significantly as they age. Still, despite the advances, growing old is
often tough. It can be tough on both the body and the soul. Is this a good time to be old in America? Richard Sprott? Richard Sprott: Well, it certainly beats the
alternative, which is to not be here at all. Sure, this is a good time to be old in America,
because I think modern biology and modern medicine are beginning to offer real serious
promise of dealing with the disabilities of the last third of the life span and to promise
us more independence and better functioning in the terminal third of our life span. That’s very promising. Ben Wattenberg: Okay, Dr. Elizabeth Cobbs? Elizabeth Cobbs: Absolutely. There’s an explosion of information and
knowledge about how to be well when you’re old, and the technologies and medicines that
are available now have much less of a burden associated with them also and a high rate
of effectiveness. So it’s very exciting from a medical standpoint. Ben Wattenberg: David Gutmann? David Gutmann: Well, it’s certainly a better
time on the psychological front, so that aging is seen in its own terms as a period of life,
rather than the antechambers of death. Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Betty Friedan? Betty Friedan: It’s a good time if they
don’t mess around with Medicare and Social Security the way they’re threatening to
do, that everybody should throw their Social Security away on the stock market. If we can continue that and if we break through,
as we’ve begun to do, to speak of age only as a program decline or deterioration from
youth — that’s the peak — to terminal senility, we know that’s not true. And we know that, for instance, only 5 percent
of Americans over 65 have any kind of senility. But the question is: Are we going to be able
to articulate not this obsession with youth, but what I call the fountain of age, a sense
of new period of human life to be seen in its own terms, where we don’t even know
yet what the possibilities of growth and development are? It’s not just decline. Ben Wattenberg: It was not long ago that a
person aged 70 was considered old. We now have a young man with no gray hair
whatsoever on his head, Robert Dole, at age 73, who is clearly going to be the Republican
nominee for president, doesn’t stop going. You have Alan Greenspan, who must be about
70, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. And lots of other examples. Is something — as David Gutmann said, is
something changing in our society, or is the physiology changing? What’s going on? Richard Sprott: Well, for starters, I think
we’ve got — our medical approaches allow people to function much better. Part of that is the fact that they had better
nutrition and better health care throughout their life, so they last toward that portion
of the life span in better shape than they used to. And that’s had a dramatic effect on our
cultural expectations as well. We have more older people around as role models. We see more highly successful older people. So we expect better functioning of older people. Ben Wattenberg: Would a Dole presidency give
people who were once considered elderly sort of a boost? Elizabeth Cobbs: We’re getting a perspective. I mean, Dole isn’t really that old. When we’re looking at the growth in the
segment of old, old people over the age of 85, he starts to look like a youngster. Ben Wattenberg: Dr. Cobbs, you deal with elderly
patients as a gerontologist, hands on. What are some of the recent medical advances
that have been specific to old people that have changed the rate of disability and the
intensity of disability? What would be the top five things or — Elizabeth Cobbs: Well, I think it’s more
health practices over a life span that have made the biggest impact. We have the ability to cure many acute illnesses. Ben Wattenberg: For example? Elizabeth Cobbs: Blood pressure control — exercise,
diet — preventing heart disease and stroke. That’s a huge area causing disability right
there. So it’s not just the medical interventions
as much as it’s the health practices that people are following in their expectations. Ben Wattenberg: Well, you have things like
the new forms of laser cataract surgery. I mean, that’s something that has made everything
a lot easier for people who are aging. Elizabeth Cobbs: Absolutely. And hearing and visual impairments with those
kinds of technologies. Also surgery. We’ve gone to much less invasive techniques
of surgery and anesthesia and — Ben Wattenberg: For example, what would be
some of the procedures that would be less invasive for elderly people? Elizabeth Cobbs: Right. Well, surgery that’s done by a laparoscope,
for example, when it’s safe to do it that way, can spare a prolonged hospital stay. Ben Wattenberg: On what sort of a condition,
for example? Elizabeth Cobbs: A gallbladder operation,
for example. Instead of having a long incision and a week
or 10 days in the hospital, people are leaving the next day and going back to work. Ben Wattenberg: Dick Sprott, there was a study
out recently, we saw in the paper, that among elderly people who do not have Alzheimer’s,
their rate of comprehension does not diminish. Richard Sprott: I think that there are large
number of older people who don’t show signs of Alzheimer’s or other senile dementias
who maintain very good function throughout their life span. I think there’s also some interesting data
to suggest what you do as you age. People who stay in professions that keep them
mentally active stay mentally agile far longer. Staying active and intricate and cognitively
involved has a positive effect. David Gutmann: Well, there seems to be a shift
actually away from the priorities of youth, which are quick processing of a lot of incoming
information, dealing with trees, towards a capacity in later life — albeit that the
brain works slower — to see forests, construct forests out of a clumping of trees and to
see larger patterns. Ben Wattenberg: The difference between knowledge
and wisdom. Betty Friedan: Exactly. Wisdom — there are qualities that emerge
beyond youth, that if you just look at the yardstick of youth, you won’t get. But if you give a 17-year-old and a 7-year-old
the same test — Ben Wattenberg: Seventeen and 70. Betty Friedan: Seventeen and 70. Ben Wattenberg: Right. Betty Friedan: Okay. It might be the simplest test, like you use
to say whether they’re senile or not — you know, unrelated words or numbers. The 70-year-old does better. You give a test that has anything to do with
meaning, and the 70-year-old does better. The 70-year-old sees it whole, sees it in
the context of a lifetime of experience, gets the essential meaning, and sloughs off their
relevant details. And there is such a thing as wisdom, but we
are such a youth-obsessed society that we only use that yardstick of youth. And it is interesting, we may begin to see
that — I mean, look how badly the freshmen in Congress did in a certain kind of — well,
we won’t get into politics, but — Ben Wattenberg: We might. [Laughter.] Not right now. Richard Sprott: To follow up on one example
of what Betty just said, if we look at every time there’s a spectacular automobile accident
that involves somebody who has a recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis, there’s a great cry to get older
drivers off the road. Those roads are built by 25-year-old — designed
by 25-year-old highway engineers to be driven in cars that were also designed by 25-year-old
automobile engineers to be driven by 65-year-old people who can’t see over the dashboard,
don’t process information in the same way, don’t get information far enough ahead of
the intersection. What we really should be doing is looking
at the context in which people live out their lives and making it fit the people who are
there, not blaming the problem on getting old. The problem here is not getting old; it’s
the environment in which we’re asking people to function. Ben Wattenberg: You were talking a moment
ago about how important it is to stay alert and stay interested. You wrote — or said something in an interview
that I read — I think dealing with both the mind and the genitals, which was, as people
age, “use it or lose it.” Is that about — Richard Sprott: Right. Yeah, I think that most of our functions are
things that we keep using. We just talked a moment ago about cognition. The same thing is probably true of reproductive
behavior. If you keep on using it, you maintain a higher
level of function than if you let it wither away. Ben Wattenberg: People have sex into the nineties? Is that what I’ve been reading? Some people? Richard Sprott: Some people. Betty Friedan: Sure. David Gutmann: They at least boast about it. Betty Friedan: Ben, your discussion looks
at age, primarily the problem of sickness, of medicines, of cures, of operations, or
God knows what, whereas, in fact, the reality is that the fastest-growing group of our whole
population are people that are not dying after 50 or 60 or 70, that are continuing — the
great majority of them — to be a part of life. And that — to see them as a part of life,
so that what I think is going to come ahead in the next 10, 15 years, we get rid of this
concept of retirement. Even now I hear people say, “Well, that’ll
be my retirement job.” I mean, people are not going to stop functioning
in society. I told the American Association of Retired
Persons they should change their name to the American Association of Resurgent Persons. The thing that people need more than any medicine
— and this comes from the research on the National Institute on Aged — big, gigantic
research, human aging one and two — two important things: purposes and projects that
gives complex structures so that they use their ability, keeps them a part of society,
and bonds of intimacy, love. It doesn’t have to be sex love. Bonds of intimacy. So they’re people, and the important thing
is that we break through this mystique of age, just a sickness, just a decline, and
look at this as a new period of human life and then use these abilities in society, use
this wisdom. And people will not need so much of the medicines. Ben Wattenberg: David, your book was called
“Reclaimed Powers.” What did you mean by that? David Gutmann: Well, the point being that
in later life or in what I call the post-parental period of life, what the French like to call
the Third Age, there is a tendency for both sexes to reclaim, if you will, aspects of
themselves, potentials, that were hitherto unused, hitherto on hold — subordinated,
if you will, to the tests of career advancement, survival, child-rearing, that kind of thing. Ben Wattenberg: What would be an example of
that? David Gutmann: You see it quite dramatically,
I think, in women, as they sort of emerge, as they come out of the closest, if you will,
of the domestic role. They exit from the parental emergency, from
that sense that somehow they have to live in and through their children and the kids
can make it on their own now. You see a great sort of — kind of a sense,
very often a sense of liberation, a sense of “Now I don’t have to be developing
them. I can develop myself.” Ben Wattenberg: Is this why women live longer,
because they’re — David Gutmann: I think it has a lot to do
with it, yeah. Because they — what women come in touch
with is the kind of aggressivity that they previously sort of throttled back on for the
sake of children. When that passes, women, as it were, reemerge. They reclaim the aggression that they used
to send out of the house with their husband. Ben Wattenberg: And what happens to the husband? David Gutmann: The husband’s also — Ben Wattenberg: He’s retired from his macho
wars and being a provider and — David Gutmann: Right. And he begins to reclaim that he used to concede
to his wife, a gentleness, a tenderness, a sensuousness, and even a maternal quality. We all know about sort of the maternal grandpa
and the tough grandma. Well, that in a sense — that stereotype
has truth in it. Richard Sprott: And it’s probably a good
thing it does because biologically that’s what’s going on at the same time. David Gutmann: Right, hormonal — Richard Sprott: This older woman’s estrogen
levels are dropping, so her androgen levels make up a greater part of her hormone balance
and she becomes biologically more aggressive, while her husband’s testosterone levels
fall and he becomes less aggressive. See, biology sort of reinforces that shift. Ben Wattenberg: Elizabeth Cobbs, do you see
these sorts of patterns emerging with specific patients that you deal with? Elizabeth Cobbs: Well, I did want to ask what
happens to the woman who doesn’t submerge, but maybe that’s another discussion. David Gutmann: Who doesn’t submerge what? In the earlier years? We don’t really know enough about that yet. Betty Friedan: Well, that’s becoming the
case, though. They don’t have to wait to have crossover. Richard Sprott: We have a whole generation
— Ben Wattenberg: Let’s just look at the darker
side of this. I mean, we all know a lot of elderly people
who are despondent and despairing and devastated and are saying, “What use am I now?” and
“I’m sick.” What — Betty Friedan: No, I don’t know a lot of
people like that. Ben Wattenberg: You do not? Betty Friedan: I know a lot of older people
that are doing the most amazing — not, you know, lifting weights or anything like that. Ben Wattenberg: Although people are lifting
— I was reading people are lifting weights at age 90 now to stay in shape. Betty Friedan: But they are moving very vitally
in society. Ben Wattenberg: Let us stipulate that many
aged are doing that, but I mean, there are also many aged who are not — who — who
really do — you must treat patients who are deeply despondent as they age. David Gutmann: Yeah. What often they are responding, though it’s
masked as a depression, is really their own developmental potentials. There are a lot of women — and hopefully
because of the work of people like Betty and others this will pass — there are a lot
of women who are still very frightened, if you will, of their own reclaimed powers. And, you know, rather than live them out,
rather than show them in the world, rather than show them to their husbands, they will
take on, in effect, what they presumed would be his depression if they showed them to him. Betty Friedan: We’re going to have to have
new images of romance, of love, of new kinds of friendships. We’re going to have to have new images of
what accomplishment and contribution really looks likes for older people. You know, I did a study for “The Fountain
of Age” of what the image of aged America was. Ben Wattenberg: I read that, about the magazine
pictures. Betty Friedan: Couldn’t find anything. Couldn’t find any image of women or men
that weren’t young doing anything. Ben Wattenberg: These were in magazines like
what? News magazines and — Betty Friedan: All kinds. Women’s, men’s, news magazines. No image of women — of anyone that wasn’t
young doing anything that any American would like to do. Richard Sprott: I don’t really want to disagree
with what Betty’s had to say because that’s quite — everything she’s said is quite
true of people who are cognitively intact. But I think we do a disservice if we ignore
the fact that there are people, lots of older people, who aren’t cognitively intact. And a good deal of our concern needs to be
directed to those people. I spent — last year I spent a half a day
every week in a nursing home to try to put my biological expectations up against reality. Betty Friedan: But that’s not the only reality. Ben Wattenberg: Let’s just talk about — Richard Sprott: It isn’t the only reality,
but it is a reality. Ben Wattenberg: Okay, but let’s talk about
that reality. I mean — Betty Friedan: You want to talk about that
reality and not the reality of the unknown frontier. Richard Sprott: I think you have to do both. I think you ignore that — Ben Wattenberg: I want to talk about both. We’re very eclectic here. Richard Sprott: — and that is a mistake. Betty Friedan: But they’re not equal. The reality he’s talking about is 5 percent. It is the most afflicted, most psychological
5 percent. There is an insistence — Richard Sprott: Five percent at any one time. Betty Friedan: — of seeing older people
in those terms. Ben Wattenberg: Dick Sprott says an interesting
thing. He says 5 percent at any one time. Richard Sprott: Your chances if you live to
be 80 or older of being in a long-term care institution are considerably higher than 5
percent. Five percent of the people in that portion
of the population are there at any one time, but your risk of winding up in that situation,
if you live into your nineties, is more like 25 to 30 percent. Betty Friedan: Oh, if you live into your nineties,
you should be so lucky. Richard Sprott: You should be so lucky. That’s right. Ben Wattenberg: If we eliminate diseases one
by one, in theory, do we live longer and longer and longer, not to 90, but to 100, 120, 150? Or is there — Richard Sprott: There’s argument about that. Ben Wattenberg: There is an argument. I mean — Richard Sprott: There are some people who
believe that we could produce routinely 150- to 180-year-old human beings. Ben Wattenberg: Healthy people. Richard Sprott: Healthy people. There are lots of others who don’t think
that’s what’s going to happen, what’ll happen is that more and more of us will get
out to that four score and 10 years in good health and then drop off at the end with some
catastrophic organ failure, that basically we’re biologically programmed in that way. The longest living human being we currently
know is something around 121 years of age, and she just died this spring. I think she died. You know, out of billions of people for whom
we have some kind of record, there are two or three survivals past 115. So there’s a biological limit there that
we approach. David Gutmann: To get back to something you
asked earlier, though, Ben, you know, again, the preoccupation with death is a young person’s
schtick, it turns out. But, as you remarked, the older person does
not so much fear death. They fear social death. They fear dying to others. They fear dying in their humanity. Physical death becomes far less of an issue. I’ve rarely seen anybody driven to a depression
by the prospect of oncoming death. The prospect of immobilization, yes. The prospect of losing your marbles, yes. But not by the prospect of physical death
per se. Richard Sprott: Loss of independence of function
we fear. Betty Friedan: What we have to do is give
you a new sense that, with dignity, you can choose to die, not having all these invasive
things that are not going to really cure you and can be terribly painful, be in a hospital
hooked up to a machine, but at home surrounded by family and friends. In a sense that you live your death, it’s
a part of life — Ben Wattenberg: This is part of — Betty Friedan: — that you have real choices. Ben Wattenberg: — the hospice movement? Betty Friedan: Yes. It’s very important, very important new
development. I think it’s much more important than nursing
homes. Ben Wattenberg: If a person in his fifties,
sixties, seventies, whatever wants to live longer and healthier, what should he or she
do? Richard Sprott: I think it’s easy, but it’s
not what people really want to hear. Ben Wattenberg: Well — Richard Sprott: One, you give up smoking. You engage in regular daily load-bearing exercise. You eat foods in moderation. That’s about it. Fasten your seat belt. Those are the things that make you live a
long time. There’s no magic bullet. There’s no pill that’s going to do it. Elizabeth Cobbs: And keep working in a job
you enjoy. Richard Sprott: Keep working in a job you
enjoy. You’re right. David Gutmann: Avoid depression. Ben Wattenberg: Yeah, right, but how do you
— David Gutmann: No, one of the things we find
is that — there’s some interesting data on this from your side of the fence, but depression
in later life, much as in infancy, degrades the immune system. Ben Wattenberg: But how do you avoid depression? David Gutmann: Well, by a more feisty, assertive,
combative stance, which again is why women, I think, live longer than men. Betty Friedan: You take new risks. You try something new if you burn out on your
old stuff. David Gutmann: Yeah. Betty Friedan: You find some way to use whatever
you’ve got or to even find out some new stuff you’re capable of. And you risk falling in love again. No matter what you’re going to do with it,
you just risk. Ben Wattenberg: All right. Let’s just — last question. Is society, as we know it now, doing better
at making things better for the elderly? Richard Sprott: I think we are getting better
as there are more older role models around, and I think we’ve got a ways to go. And I think, if you go to Hawaii, for example,
where the silver-haired people are venerated in a way they aren’t here, you’ll see
what we could do on a regular basis. People step out of the way of people with
gray hair to let them get on the bus first. That doesn’t happen in our cities, but it
could. Ben Wattenberg: Here you knock them aside
because they may be a little weaker. Richard Sprott: But we could do it differently. David Gutmann: They don’t have the upper
body strength. [Laughter.] Ben Wattenberg: Dr. Cobbs? Elizabeth Cobbs: I think we’re doing a much
better job, and I agree with Betty’s point about that this is an intergenerational, inter-gender
kind of activity and that these different groups have so much to give each other. And so the challenge of solving the problems
of aging or whatever problems people are facing come often from other groups and how people
can give to each other. That’s what we’re really learning about. David Gutmann: One of the things that’s
happening in the society is that there is generally now a greater acceptance of, you
know, the qualities of softness and tenderness in men and the qualities of assertiveness,
aggression, competitiveness in women. And I think that has particular benefits. I never thought it was a very good agenda
for the young, but it has particular benefits, I think, for the elders. And I’d rather — by the way, I’d like
to see us use the word “elders” rather than “aged.” It has — that is, it kind of accredits the
developmental changes that normally take place in them. Ben Wattenberg: The whole New Age syndrome
is not necessarily so great for young people, but it makes a lot of sense for elderly people. David Gutmann: It makes a lot of sense for
the elderly. Ben Wattenberg: Interesting. Betty Friedan: So what about a shorter work
week for everybody? It would enable — it would be very good
for women and men in the parenting years. It would be very good for youth and beyond
youth that have to combine education and work. It would leave older people not to be pushed
out as they are now in their sixties, their fifties, even in their forties, but continue
to contribute to society. They don’t want to do it, and none of us
should want to do it, in the kind of 60-hour week practically that people are working now. Ben Wattenberg: All right. Thank you, Richard Sprott, Betty Friedan,
Elizabeth Cobbs, and David Gutmann. And thank you. Please send your questions and comments to
New River Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20036. Or we can be reached via email at [email protected]
and on the World Wide Web at www.thinktank.com. For “Think Thank,” I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
Inc., in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.

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