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Charting The New Map of Life

The Stanford Center on Longevity director on how we can make the most of our 30 extra years of life

By Laura Carstensen

Demographers predict that as many as half of the children born in the developed world since 2000 will reach the age of 100 and beyond. Once a rare event, century-long lives will become commonplace by 2050. The near doubling of life expectancy presents a range of challenges — along with yet unrealized opportunities.

A woman in her old age holding a young grandchild showing him her garden, vitality, longevity, Next Avenue
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To the extent that we continue to live our lives according to the norms, institutions and policies based on lives half as long as the ones we now enjoy, we will surely face a crisis. However, if we act quickly to apply scientific and technological solutions and change the ways we live, the added years can improve quality of life at all ages. 

The unprecedented age diversity in society today is a net positive.

In 2018, the Stanford Center on Longevity launched an initiative we call The New Map of Life, premised on the belief that this profound transformation in human longevity calls for equally momentous and creative changes in the ways we lead 100-year lives. Building on the work of Stanford Center on Longevity research fellows, who analyzed central life domains affecting long life outcomes, we argue that if we act now, we can not only meet the challenges longer lives present, but we can also use added years to improve quality of life at all ages.  We have distilled this work into a set of cross-cutting principles that can act as guideposts for The New Map of Life.

The New Map of Life: A Plan

We must first recognize that the unprecedented age diversity in society today is a net positive. The speed, strength and zest for discovery common in younger people, combined with the emotional intelligence, prosocial tendencies and wisdom prevalent among older people, create new possibilities for families, communities and workplaces that haven't existed before.

Rather than dwelling so anxiously on the costs incurred by an "aging" society, we can instead measure and reap the remarkable dividends of our increasingly age-diverse world.

The process begins by investing in today's children — the future centenarians of the 21 century. Early childhood investments deliver big returns, as benefits can compound for decades, while allowing for more time to recover from disadvantages and setbacks.

The pivotal years between birth and kindergarten are an optimal time for children to acquire many of the cognitive, emotional and social skills needed for a healthy, happy and active life. Beyond childhood, we must invest in public health at every life stage.

Rather than life span, we should make health span — the years when people are healthy, mobile, mentally sharp and free of pain — the new metric for determining how, when and where to allocate our resources.

To ensure that all people reap these benefits, we should invest not only in better access to health care, but in the health of communities, especially those affected by poverty, discrimination and environmental damage.

Rethinking Work for 100-Year Lives

Over the course of 100-year lives, we may work 60 years or more. But we should not work the way we do now, cramming 40-hour weeks into lives impossibly packed from morning until night with parenting, family, caregiving, schooling and other obligations.

Workers seek flexibility, whether that means working from home at times or having flexible routes in and out of the workplace, including paid and unpaid intervals for caregiving, health needs, life-long learning and other transitions to be expected over century-long lives.

As we move in and out of careers and life roles, we will need to also build flexibility into how we learn. Rather than front-loading formal education into the first two decades of life, The New Map of Life envisions new options for learning outside the confines of formal education, with people of all ages able to acquire the knowledge they need at each stage of their lives and to access it in ways that fit their needs, interests, abilities, schedules and budgets.

We cannot ignore the impact of the physical world around us. The impacts of the physical environment begin before birth, with advantages and disadvantages accumulating over the entire course of life, determining how likely an individual is to be physically active, whether they are isolated or socially engaged, and how likely they are to develop obesity, respiratory, cardiovascular or neurodegenerative disease.

Making Communities Longevity-Ready

Currently, individual life expectancies in the U.S. can vary by as much as 20 years, depending on where a person is born and raised. We must start now to design and build neighborhoods that are longevity-ready, and to assess potential investments through a lens of long life, considering not only current quality of life, but the impact of our homes and communities on our future selves.

Finally, we must all be prepared to be amazed by the future of aging!

Today's children will grow up in tomorrow's world. Medical advances will lead to treatments both more effective and more personalized than what we currently experience. Progress in artificial intelligence, ubiquitous high-speed connectivity, materials and manufacturing hold the promise of redesigning a more flexible and equitable world.

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And while there is currently no way to stop the process of aging, the emerging field of geroscience holds the potential to transform how we age, by seeking to identify and reprogram the genetic and molecular mechanisms behind aging at a cellular level. Such interventions would simultaneously reduce the risk of the host of diseases and degenerative conditions for which age is the dominant risk factor.

The policies and investments we undertake today will determine how the current young become the future old.

Meeting the challenges of longevity is not the sole responsibility of government, employers, health care providers or insurance companies. It is an all-hands, all-sector undertaking, requiring the best ideas from the private sector, government, medicine, academia and philanthropy.

It is not enough to reimagine or rethink society to become longevity-ready; we must build it, and fast. The policies and investments we undertake today will determine how the current young become the future old — and whether we make the most of the 30 extra years of life that have been handed to us.

Laura Carstensen is the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity and professor of psychology and Fairleigh S. Dickinson professor in public policy at Stanford University. Read More
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