The Stanford Center on Longevity focuses on improving – not prolonging – the quality of life as we age.
That’s up to other organizations, said Los Altos resident Ken Smith, the center’s director of academic and research support.
“We’re not really shooting at immortality,” he quipped.
An engineer with a graduate degree from the University of Washington, Smith has more than 20 years of management experience and most recently worked on Intel Corporation’s network of university research labs.
Smith currently manages research on ways that people who “get to old age, whether you want to call that 55 or 75, need to be mentally fit, physically fit and financially fit.” It takes planning and becoming “an entrepreneur of your time,” he said.
Smith is scheduled to speak at “Get Involved/Get Active,” a community expo on the role volunteering plays in healthful aging, during a Rotary Club of Los Altos lunch and workshop 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 2 at the Los Altos Youth Center, 1 N. San Antonio Road. Admission is free, but registration is required at www.losaltosrecreation.org.
Organized by Rotary’s Partners for Elder Generations committee, the workshop will match “young seniors” – those 50 and up – with non-profits that need help. Hosting non-profits include The House Trust, the Community Services Agency and El Camino Hospital. Smith will speak on the longevity center’s findings that exercise, diet, social connectedness and education lead to healthful aging.
Community involvement is crucial for seniors, because scientists find that social isolation can foreshadow a decline in health, Smith said.
“There are connections between health and community,” he said. “The key is getting out.”
Although people’s social circles may shrink with time, the magic number is three close friends.
“Three seems to be a critical number, and ideally these are … a diverse mix,” according to Smith.
In addition to social interaction, other positive influences on quality of life in old age include exercise, diet – with theories ranging from the benefits of high-protein to calorie-restricted diets – and education.
This doesn’t necessarily mean getting an advanced degree, report the Stanford studies, but even just taking adult education classes.
“Even controlling for income … the more education you get, the longer you will live,” Smith said.
Besides failing physical health, the most negative effect on quality of life is stress, particularly long-term stress. What causes stress? Most people would think executives or people with tremendous responsibility would have the highest stress levels. Not so, said Smith, who added that lack of control could be more stressful than lots of responsibility.
An estimated 130 Stanford faculty members have agreed to share their research on aging with the center, although the core group of center employees numbers 12. Consultants include former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, now nearly 90. One area of trailblazing research focuses on a study of the knee by Los Altos Hills resident and Stanford engineering professor Thomas Andriacchi, Ph.D.
Changing demographics indicate that baby boomers are living longer, and by the year 2030, 20 percent of the nation will be over 65 years old. When today’s children grow old, living to 100 will be common, according to Stanford studies.
That certainly means that times have changed since The Beatles’ song “When I’m Sixty-Four,” an ode Paul McCartney wrote about his 57-year-old father in 1958. At the time, 64 seemed like old age, but now life expectancy is 84 for men, 86 for women. Most people will be retired for 20 years, according to center statistics.
“This can be a great opportunity,” Smith said. “We’re pretty well-known for having a pretty positive view on aging.”
Molecular genetics also puzzles researchers, who are studying why some people will not get Parkinson’s disease, even though they carry the genes for it.
“Basically, we want to give everyone the best shot (at aging) as possible,” Smith said.
Smith said he loves his job.
“I get to go listen to teachers and talks given by people who are world class in their fields,” he said. “I’m always the one who knows the least about any topic in the room.”
For more information, visit longevity.stanford.edu.