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AARP CEO shares a new vision of aging: Something to look forward to

The latest Dean's Lecture Series featured AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins on aging: "We need to prepare for a time when it's commonplace to live to be 100."

If you knew you would live to 100, how would you live your life differently?

How would you approach your education and career, knowing you might need to stay employed for 50 years? Would you finish school in your 20s? Would you retire at 65?

Those were some of the probing questions AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins asked audience members to consider during a wide-ranging discussion about health and well-being in aging held last week with Dean Lloyd Minor, MD. It was the latest event in the Dean's Lecture Series.

While obviously none of us can know our ultimate age, the chances of living to 100 are increasing, Jenkins said. There were distinct "wows" from the crowd when Jenkins shared the statistic that close to 75,000 people are living over the age of 100 in the U.S. alone, and people over 100 represent the second fastest-growing age group in this country. The first: people over the age of 85.

"As a society, we need to prepare for a time when it's commonplace to live to be 100," Jenkins said.

In his introduction, Minor emphasized that the burgeoning populations of older Americans will have "profound ramifications" for health care. He championed Jenkins' work:

It's an issue of particular importance here at Stanford, and a topic that we study in multiple different departments around the university. Through our collective efforts to accelerate and implement scientific discoveries, technological advances, and behavioral practices, we are endeavoring to make century-long lives more healthy and rewarding.

Even as people are changing how they're growing older, our attitudes and stereotypes about them haven't shifted, said Jenkins. She played the 2017 "Saturday Night Live" parody commercial for Amazon Echo Silver -- which poked fun of the interactions between older adults and a made-up smart speaker that responds to any name remotely close to Alexa, listens to the owner's rambling stories and "plays all the music they liked when they were young."

"It's OK to laugh... but if we continue to see older people only through that lens, we will miss this massive shift in aging demographics," said Jenkins.

Dean Lloyd Minor in discussion with AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins at the recent Dean's Lecture Series.

In 2016, Jenkins wrote Disrupt Aging: A Bold New Path to Living Your Best Life at Every Age. Using the Silicon Valley innovation parlance, Jenkins said we need to "disrupt" the attitudes around aging and create a culture of health that emphasizes overall well-being so that elderly Americans can continue to live the way they want to:

We're realizing more and more each day that our health outcomes have more to do with what we do every day than our occasional visit to the doctor's office. We used to say the secret of a long live is having the right parents. But today, we know that's not true.

She cited research that found 60% of our health outcomes are due to social, environmental and behavioral factors, with the remainder of health outcomes due to medical care and genetics.

Designing a health care system that emphasizes wellness in aging requires a mindset change in several areas, she said. As one example, she said, rather than focusing on older people's physical and mental diminishment, we should look at ways to improve their physical and mental fitness.

Change must come from the private and public sectors, Jenkins said. The AARP is working to boost the development of products and programs for older adults' well-being through the AARP Innovation Fund. The investment fund prioritizes companies working to help people to stay in their homes, access health care and prevent the onset of serious health conditions, she explained.

Jenkins said she was proud to see innovations in health care coming from younger generations trying to address a need in their own families, whether it's a parent or grandparent with dementia or a caregiving challenge. In October, Jenkins awarded the AARP's first "Innovator in Aging" prize for a smart bracelet that delivers warm or cool sensations. The inventor told AARP he wanted to help his mom, who is always cold, and her friends, who have experienced hot flashes for years.

Toward the end of the discussion, Minor asked Jenkins about her aspirations for AARP in the next five years. She said she hopes the organization can change the image of aging as something to look forward to:

I hope ... when you get that card -- that red card -- and that Happy Birthday at 50, that you don't throw it in the trash can, or if you pull up that app, you get it and say, 'Yes! I've finally earned the right to be a member of AARP.'

Photos by Paul Sakuma

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