One day, while flitting about on earth, the Greek goddess, Eos, met and fell in love with a mortal. Eos went to her father, Zeus, and said, “please, Father, give Tithonus immortality.”
“Are you sure that’s what you want?” Zeus responded.
“Yes, Father, more than anything.”
Like any father with a beloved daughter (goddess or not), Zeus bowed to her beauty and did as he was told, granting Tithonus immortality. Only there was one snag in the arrangement — Eos never asked for eternal youth along with immortality. Over the centuries, Tithonus, unable to die, but with a withered and crumbling body, lived on. Eos, blessed with eternal youth, watched her beloved age and wither, his bones reduced to dust, yet he lived on — he lived on and on and on, well beyond what anyone would consider an enviable quality of life.
Gerontologist and aging expert Ken Dychtwald loves to tell that mythical tale, the story a perfect metaphor to describe our aging population and the modern world’s God-like ability to keep people alive.
“On the first day of the 20th century,” says Dychtwald. “the average life expectancy was 47. As the century closed, it was 78. Today, it’s approaching 80 and continuing to rise.”
The modern age
It’s no secret that modern medicine and technology have done a remarkable job of keeping people living longer.
According to Dychtwald, we’re living “in an era of extraordinary change with regard to longevity and I think it’s important to keep in mind that throughout 99 percent of history, the average life expectation worldwide was under 18.”
Until the 20th century ushered in its medical breakthroughs, humans lived short, brutal lives. Twenty percent never reached their first birthday. The rest of childhood was hellish as well with infectious diseases running rampant.
“So back in the 1850s couples didn’t say, ‘Honey, what would you like to do after retirement,’ because you wouldn’t be living that long,” says Dychtwald. “The medical system didn’t need to be experts in things like hypercholesterolemia or adult onset diabetes or age-related cognitive decline and things like Alzheimer’s and related dementia.”
But the 20th century witnessed breakthroughs in “public health, antibiotics, the capacity to do more sophisticated surgical procedures thanks to anesthesiology — frankly, a much more sophisticated field of medicine,” the effect of which is the ever-expanding average life expectancy, says Dychtwald.
What’s amazing, he adds, is the amount of time people now experience in retirement. In the past, people worked until they died. Now when someone retires, they might have another 20 or 30 years of life in front of them.
“If you’re a woman it’s even longer, if you’re wealthy, it’s even longer than that,” says Dychtwald, “because wealthier people tend to have better access to medical care and live a bit longer than folks with fewer resources.”
What’s really exciting — as well as terrifying — in the aging conversation are the potential breakthroughs that could be on the way.
“There are many people who believe that we’re on the brink right now of extraordinary breakthroughs that could very well add another two or three or five, even 10 or 20 years to our lives,” says Dychtwald.
He believes the longevity revolution changes everything, “having a bigger transformative impact on who we are and how we live and the competitiveness of nations than either of the industrial or technological revolutions of previous centuries. And it surely is going to have a huge impact on how much money people need to live with security and comfort throughout their lives. Because if you’re going to live 61 years, you need different resources than if you’re going to live 91 years.”
The aging population
A boomer by birth, Dychtwald entered college in the late 60s where he tells me he “wandered into a psychology course — The Psychology of Human Potential.” At the time, a student of physics and engineering, Dychtwald would leave the course fully awash in the Age of Aquarius, his brain afire with ideas.
“The whole idea that each of us had capabilities and capacities that were untouched, untapped — yet there were techniques, therapies and approaches that had been examined throughout the world by which people could unleash more and more of their mental and physical capabilities and talents,” he says, “just seemed to me about the most amazing thing I had ever heard.”
At 22, he wrote a book, Body Mind, that remains in print 40 years after its initial publication. Later, he would receive funding from the National Institutes of Health to set up the first preventative health project in America for older adults, ultimately to be called the SAGE Project.
“I became fascinated with older adults as a young man. I became really curious as to how some of these incredible older people were happy, healthy and financially secure, and others were not. What became obvious to me, as the years unfolded was that there are choices we make along the way. There is the issue of the elderly, but then there’s the issue of aging and how do we become 50-year-olds? How do we look after our bodies? Do we save enough? When we lose friends do we make new ones? All of these issues pertaining to our aging society, and also individual aging, were incredibly interesting to me as a young man.”
By 1982, with nearly a decade as an expert in the field of aging, Dychtwald was asked to provide studies for The Office of Technology Assessment, a think tank of the U.S. Congress from 1972 to 1995.
Dychtwald and other forward thinkers worked on a project called Technology and Aging, where they crystal balled how America would be transformed in the 21st century as a result of changing demographics.
“Every month we’d fly to Washington and debate and try to make sense of all the ways in which our health care system, our infrastructure, politics and economics were going to be altered as a result of increasing longevity — the aging of the baby boomers and declining birth rates — what I came to call the Age Wave (the name of the company he formed in 1986).
“In studying the country’s demographics, what became obvious to me was that America had been built for the young,” says Dychtwald. “Everything from our physical environments to the way we think of the stages of life had been oriented around who we used to be and who we used to be was young.”
And, while that may have been the case, Dychtwald connected the dots, even as far back as 1982, and saw the boomers, 76 million strong, getting older and their impact on culture meant the demographic focus on the young would have to change with them.
“What became more and more striking to me then was that as the demographic forces played out, we would focus on what kinds of products and services would 60-year-olds want? How would the boomers approach retirement differently than previous generations? If you’re going to live 80, 90 or 100 years, when are we old? When should we be receiving pensions? What’s the relationship within the family as we have three- and four- and five-generation families living simultaneously for the first time in history?”
At one point in the 80s, Dychtwald even received a call from Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca who asked him, “The population’s going to be living longer, what does that mean for the automobile?”
The aging problem
A frequent speaker at conferences and events, Dychtwald cringes when he hears the introduction, “Next, Dr. Dychtwald will talk about how we deal with the problems of our aging society.”
Why, in his view, would aging be seen as a “problem” when humans have spent the last 100,000 years looking for ways to get people to live to old age. Since the dawn of man, we’ve been in pursuit of “fountains of health, better and safer environments, eliminating disease. And now we’ve created older people and are giving people that long-sought-after longevity, so I don’t really view it as a problem. For me, this is a great gift, this is a great triumph.”
But a problem does exist — in regards to money. Speaking on a panel with Dycthwald at the 2014 ASA (American Society on Aging) Conference, Dr. Joe Coughlin, director of MIT’s Age Lab, raised the question on everyone’s mind with regards to aging, “Who’s going to pay for it?”