Though it's easy to focus on the challenges of an aging society, Stanford's Laura Carstensen, PhD, believes the benefits shouldn't be overlooked. In a talk today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Carstensen, as outlined in a Stanford Report article, discussed how we might gain from the talents and experience of our elders:
"We have presumed, even in science, that age is associated with decline," she said. "But it turns out that's not true. The profile for aging is much more nuanced. There is decline, but there are also improvements – in emotional functioning, improvements in knowledge.
"If you have a large population of emotionally stable, knowledgeable and relatively healthy old people, that's a good resource."
Of course before we can tap into this resource, we need to apply science and technology to solve the problems of older people:
Sustaining the health of an aging population is an obvious issue. Carstensen identifies chronic, long-term diseases as a much bigger problem today than before. Most of the medical advances in the last century involved acute diseases that affected mainly young people, she said. There has been less progress on chronic diseases that inflict old people, like diabetes, arthritis and osteoporosis.
"Flash back 100 years, this wasn't a big problem," she said. "It wasn't a big problem for society or most individuals, because you were dead before you would get those diseases. But today, they are problems."
Carstensen is director of the Stanford Center on Longevity.