In 1900, the average life expectancy in the United States was just 47.3 years. Today, it is 78.6, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many people will outstrip that average.
But is that advance really worthwhile if it only means more time feeling old and infirm? In a feature article online and in the May 20 edition of the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik talks to researchers and innovators trying to make old age feel younger.
It’s a tricky paradox: More life doesn’t necessarily equate to more youth. And as Gopnik reports, senior citizens actually hate products that could improve their lives but are clearly designed for older people.
To understand which of those kinds of products might make quality of life last longer, Gopnik went to MIT’s AgeLab, where researchers study aging people and come up with ways to let them stay active and healthy longer.
There he finds the paradox in full swing.
“The most effective way of comforting the aged, the researchers there find,” he writes, “is through a kind of comical convergence of products designed by and supposedly for impatient millennials, which secretly better suit the needs of irascible boomers.”
The quandary has an even more serious side: Lengthened lives come with increased risk for age-related diseases. Chronic and degenerative diseases are on the rise in nations with sharp declines in child mortality; among them are conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. According to the CDC, the incidence of Alzheimer’s doubles every five years in individuals who live past 65.
Gopnik talks to Alzheimer’s researchers, too, and considers what youth might look like if scientists do manage to eradicate old age. He gives sensitive consideration to the fate that awaits everyone lucky enough to reach their “golden years” — and the ways in which science might be able to burnish them.