Moving aging/longevity to the political main stage

Associated Press

EMERYVILLE, Calif. (BUSINESS WIRE) — An age wave is coming that could make or break our nation.

Two-thirds of all the people who have ever lived past the age of 65 in the entire history of the world are alive today. When our Constitution was crafted, the average life expectancy in the U.S. was barely 36 years and the median age was a mere 16. Today, the average life expectancy at birth is 79 and is steadily rising. In this regard, we are living in truly unchartered territory and longevity is humanity’s new frontier.

Are we prepared? No. Are the candidates addressing the full force of this age wave and offering innovative solutions? No.

It’s time to move aging/longevity issues to the political main stage. These are questions being addressed by Ken Dychtwald, PhD, a psychologist, gerontologist, documentary filmmaker, author of 16 books, and founding CEO of Age Wave. Based on his 40 years of research, dialogue, and analysis, Dr. Dychtwald believes there are four essential transpartisan issues that must be addressed if our newfound longevity is to be a triumph rather than a tragedy.

ISSUE #1: Moonshot needed — to beat the diseases of aging before they beat us.

Until recently, most people died swiftly and relatively young of infectious diseases, accidents, or in childbirth. Today, pandemics of heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes are running rampant. For example, Alzheimer’s (and related dementias) now afflicts one in two people over 85, and it has become the nation’s scariest disease. Just as President John F. Kennedy, in 1961, dedicated the United States to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade, we must set a bold goal of stopping Alzheimer’s within a decade. But our scientific priorities are woefully out of synch: for every dollar currently spent on Alzheimer’s care, less than half a cent is being spent on innovative scientific research. Our doctors are also not aging-ready. We have more than 50,000 pediatricians, but fewer than 5,000 geriatricians. Only eight of the country’s 145 academic medical centers have full geriatrics departments, and 97 percent of U.S. medical students don’t take a single course in geriatrics.

Questions for the candidates:

• What bold measures would you take to beat Alzheimer’s before it beats us?

• Shouldn’t it be mandatory for medical and nursing schools to teach core geriatric skills to all students?

• Considering 34 million people are providing care to an elder loved one, what changes should be made to the tax code and work leave policies to help them out?

ISSUE #2: Averting a new era of mass elder poverty

According to the Government Accounting Office, roughly half (52 percent) of all households near retirement (headed by someone age 55+) have NO retirement savings and about half (51 percent) of our population have no pensions beyond Social Security. We could be heading to a future in which tens of millions of impoverished aging boomers could place crushing burdens on the U.S. economy. This is not a Democrat or Republican issue, or something that only impacts “seniors.” It is an issue that will affect us all. It will have a particularly strenuous impact on the Millennial generation. On top of this, we are not fostering financial literacy among the young (many of whom might live exceptionally long lives). Thirty-seven states require providing sex education to high school students by law, while only 17 states require financial education.

Questions for the candidates:

• How can we cause Americans to save enough to be able to afford their longer lives?

• Describe Social Security and Medicare as you think they should be for the Millennial generation. And shouldn’t all young people learn about money management in high school?

• Considering the substantial “asset inequality” among older adults, should we affluence test entitlements to give more to those in need and less to those who are not?

ISSUE #3: Ending ageism

In Colonial times, elders were respected and honored for their experience, wisdom and perspective. Now, in our youth-focused society, gerontophobia (fear of aging and discomfort with older adults) runs rampant. As a result, institutions across the board—such as urban planning, education, technology, employment hiring, housing, and popular media (where advertisers will pay networks far more for a 30-year old viewer than one who is 60)—are both youth-centric and ageist. For example, our homes were not built for aging bodies: less than 2 percent of our housing stock is built to be safe and accessible for elders (and one-third of the elderly fall each year). Similarly, the routes of public transportation were created with young workers, not retirees, in mind.

Questions for the candidates:

• How would you propose wiping out the ageism that is pervasive in America?

• How should our communities become more “aging friendly?”

• As they age, millions of people struggle with mobility and transportation—and corresponding social isolation. How should that be remedied?

ISSUE #4: Establishing a new purpose for maturity

Today’s retirees feel they are in the best time in their lives to give back. Going forward, medical science can—and will—increasingly prolong life. Yet, considering the longevity bonus that retirees enjoy, we haven’t even scratched the surface in unleashing all of the available experience, skills and wisdom for the public good. Isn’t it time to create a compelling national vision for the purpose of all those additional years? For example, our 68 million retirees currently spend an average of 49 hours (2,940 minutes) a week watching television. Ultimately, the problem may not be our growing legions of older adults; it may be our absence of imagination, creativity, and leadership regarding what to do with all of this maturity and longevity.

Questions for the candidates:

• Do we ask too little of our elders?

• What is your biggest idea for what America’s 68 million retirees could be doing to contribute to our society?

• Why do you think this is the right age for you to be president? Are you an aging/longevity role model? How?

An age wave is coming, and we’re not ready. Just as society’s institutions were grossly unprepared for the baby boom, we have done far too little to prepare for the coming age wave. Do we as a nation have the guts and wisdom to ask—and answer—these questions? I believe we do. Time and time again Americans have proved that we are a creative, industrious nation with tremendous capacity for improvement and transformation. I surely hope that the candidates are prepared to address these critical issues and boldly make the course-corrections necessary to usher in a healthy and purposeful future of aging.

Associated Press

Founded in 1986, Age Wave is a pioneer in the exploration of the impact of the longevity revolution. Under the leadership of Founder/CEO Ken Dychtwald, PhD, Age Wave advises businesses and non-profits worldwide about the opportunities and challenges of an aging population.

Founded in 1986, Age Wave is a pioneer in the exploration of the impact of the longevity revolution. Under the leadership of Founder/CEO Ken Dychtwald, PhD, Age Wave advises businesses and non-profits worldwide about the opportunities and challenges of an aging population.