The founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity predicted recently that most members of the Los Altos Morning forum audience would sail into their 80s and 90s, and some into their 100s.
Laura Carstensen, Ph.D., discussed “A Long, Bright Future” in her Oct. 2 presentation, noting that in the 1800s, life expectancy was in the mid-30s. Today it has more than doubled to age 78.
Because fertility rates dropped in the latter half of the 20th century, Carstensen forecast that by 2015, there will be more people older than 60 than under 15. In Japan, 28 percent will be older than 60 by 2030, and 16 percent of Europe’s population will be older than 65.
Carstensen, a Los Altos resident, said researchers don’t know how long people could survive under ideal conditions, such as curing all diseases and eliminating accidents and environmental toxins, but it could be up to 122. A French woman died in 1997 at age 122.
Another trend, Carstensen said, is that survival is increasing at a younger age because fewer babies and children are dying before adulthood.
“For the first time, the vast majority of babies are growing old,” she said.
Carstensen attributed the longevity to the fact that scientists have discovered the origins of diseases, vaccinated babies, pasteurized milk, purified waterways, brought refrigeration into homes and removed garbage to halt the spread of contagious diseases. Legislators have passed child labor laws, introduced public education in every state and promoted good nutrition. She said this means that now it is possible for six generations to be alive at the same time.
According to Carstensen, many older people are thriving – they are generally happy, emotionally stable, healthy, engaged and capable. Demographers originally thought people would naturally become sick as they aged, she said, but today’s 69-year-old person is the equivalent of 59. In fact, she added, people decline only just before they die.
“It is not age, per se, but how they live,” she said.
Financial security also helps longevity. Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, osteoarthritis and hearing and vision loss are among the physical contributors to a decline in the quality of life.
Even better news, Carstensen said, is that the potential of science is breathtaking. Once intractable problems can now be overcome with regenerative medicine, molecular biology, pharmaceuticals, genetics and new technology in the home.
Carstensen concluded that the 20th century has given people an extra 30 years of life.
Carstensen is professor of psychology and the Fairleigh S. Dickinson Jr. Professor of Public Policy at Stanford University. For more than 20 years, the National Institute on Aging has supported her research at the Stanford Center on Longevity.
Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series that meets at Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. For membership details and more information, visit www.morningforum.com.