Human life expectancy has increased significantly in the 21st century — a remarkable achievement, but also a great challenge. We recently spoke with Nancy Easterbrook, director of external affairs at the Stanford Center on Longevity, to garner her insights about the experience of living longer and the ways we can better prepare for and enjoy the later years of our lives.
Does your research identify ways that people are thriving as they age?
People are embracing 'being young longer.' Baby boomers are starting to get to that point when they’re saying, 'I’m going to use my skills and go do something else when I retire.' We call these 'encore careers.' There are so many more opportunities for work later in life.
We find in our research that when you study three groups of people in work groups — those in their 20s-30s, those in their 50s, and those in a mixed group of both ages, the mixed group is having the most success because it draws upon the strengths of each age bracket. People in their 50-60s have a wealth of information. Mixing what’s been here with new innovation becomes a successful formula for many businesses and organizations.
Also, as families live with multiple generations, grandparents may be spending more time with their grandchildren, which could result in increased social engagement that would positively impact life expectancy.
What can we can do to stay mentally sharp and physically healthy throughout our lifetimes?
To reiterate, social engagement is a key for mental health. We are currently studying the impact of technology, to see if it’s a hindrance, a help or of no consequence vis à vis social engagement. Additionally, having a purpose is important to mental health. People who keep working, because that’s their purpose, have a reason to get up and put their shoes on in the morning.
In terms of physical health, we are studying the impact of nutrition and physical mobility. Sedentary behavior, such as when you are on the computer, may be more detrimental to your health than smoking. Twenty years ago, jobs weren’t quite so sedentary. It has become more important to be aware of your physical activity throughout the day.
Are there any other facets of health that you take into consideration when you’re thinking about longevity?
Hearing loss is a facet we’re looking at because it affects both your physical health and your mental health. Studies show that as you start to lose your hearing, you start to withdraw from social situations because you may feel that you can’t communicate well. We are even looking at younger generations, who have a higher rate of earbud use, because we are concerned about hearing damage occurring at potentially younger ages.
What is the greatest determinant of longevity?
Remarkably, your birth zip code is the biggest determinant. Zip codes are indicators of opportunities for education, housing, jobs, availability of nutritious food, places for physical activity and access to health care. Longevity is influenced by this network of factors and by the choices available to us in childhood and adulthood.
Your income will impact your longevity more than any other factor. Those who have the wherewithal to pay for that yoga class and to save for retirement are poised to live longer, and that schism between the richer vs. the poorer will just continue to get greater.
What’s the one take-away message we should all remember about longevity?
Rather than any one take-away, it’s really about all the choices we make along the way — as a child, teenager, young adult, adult, retiree. Each and every choice impacts your trajectory and how you live your life. Perhaps the best message is this: It’s okay to talk about life expectancy, and it’s even better to plan for it.
A longer version of this article originally appeared on BeWell Stanford.
Photo by Marion Michele