Saturday, October 24, 2009

Living to 104—A New Kind of Old Age

The most respected medical journal in the world, The Lancet, published a paper earlier this month that predicted that at least half of all babies born in America in 2007 will live to the age of 104. Researchers at the Danish Aging Research Center said that most babies born since 2000 in rich countries like the US, the UK, Japan, etc., will celebrate their 100th birthdays—and that there is no limit on human longevity!

Here’s another nugget from the Lancet article: Since the 20th century, people in developed countries are living about three decades longer than in the past. Surprisingly, the trend shows little sign of slowing down.

This is very good news for our grandchildren, but what does it mean for those of us who have already entered cronehood?

Well, the same report predicted that in 1950, the likelihood of survival from age 80 to 90 was 15 percent to 16 percent for women and 12 percent for men, compared with 37 per cent for women and 25 per cent for men in 2002.

That means that today, chances are very good that we over-sixty women will live to celebrate our 90th birthday.

(Two weeks ago, as I reported in this blog, I traveled back to Minnesota for my high school class’s 50th reunion. During the weekend, I was absolutely astonished to find out how many of my 68-year-old classmates still had living parents in their late nineties! My own mother died at 75 and my father at 80.)

Reacting to the article in The Lancet, The New York Times devoted most of its op-ed page on Oct. 19 to discussing previous ideas about the stages of a man’s life and a woman’s life.

Reporter Ben Schott wrote: “Researchers at the Danish Aging Research Center at the University of Southern Demark suggested that those born in developed countries could now be considered to have four stages of life – CHILD, ADULT, YOUNG OLD AGE and OLD OLD AGE.”

There followed charts and lists recording “some of the many other divisions of mankind’s lifespan, proposed by a variety of writers.”

They cited Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage….one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages….” etc.

And Hippocrates: “Infant (0-7), Child (8-14) Boy (15-21) Youth (22-28), Man (29-49), Elderly (50-56), and Old (57+)“

And the Times cited the traditional division of a woman’s life into “Maiden, Mother and Crone” which I discussed in a previous post titled “What is a Crone, anyway?”

I love learning that the Danes decided there were two stages of old age. Since 50 is clearly now “middle-aged”, I suspect they consider 60-80 as “Young old age” and 81-100 to be “Old old age”. Maybe after we turn 81 we can refer to ourselves as “Uber Crones” or “Supercrones”!

You’ll notice that Hippocrates, four centuries B. C., considered anything over 57 to be living on borrowed time.

You’ll also notice that every study of longevity gives women a longer life span than men. Why, I don’t know, but I suspect one reason that women live longer is that women are able to share their ailments and concerns and problems with each other and to derive comfort from their women friends and relatives, and men are not so good at this—they tend to be “manly” and bottle it all up inside.

The Lancet study suggested that shortening the work week and extending people’s working lives would further increase life expectancy and health. Another thing I learned from my classmates and their bios in the Reunion Book is that many men and a few women wrote that they “tried and failed” at retirement around the age of sixty-five and have now at 68, gone back to work—often in a different field or as a volunteer.

Nowadays it’s ridiculous to think of stopping work at 65 and preparing to die. If we believe in the four-stage system suggested by the Danes, we’re still in “young old age” and have nearly another twenty good years ahead of us when we can be useful and creative and donate our skills and energy to the common good.

It’s exciting to be a crone (over sixty) in this new age of increased life expectancy.

I belong to a woman’s group called “Salon” that meets about once a month to discuss various topics of interest, and tomorrow we are addressing the question “What are your plans for living a full life as our bodies and minds age?”

It’s a very timely topic, especially with our increased life expectancy, and I promise to pass along any pearls of wisdom I learn.

What do YOU do to live a full life as our bodies and minds age? Comments would be appreciated below or at

(By the way, I wanted to discuss the new life expectancies in this weekend’s essay. Next weekend it will be “Do You Believe in Ghosts? Do I?”, drawing from the 100 letters I received from people who believed their houses were haunted. During the week there will be a Crone Complaint on Tuesday and some posts about art and the “Story behind the Photograph” on Thursday and Friday.)

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