Laura L. Carstensen’s book, A Long Bright Future, sets out to debunk false assumptions right away. Aging people are happier, often healthier and more engaged in their communities than younger people. She erases many of the prejudices and myths of aging that continue to prevent a genuine understanding of fundamental changes in our society.
In many ways she is a clear bell ringing amid all the political chaos around us. Aging is now the single most important social evolution that will alter the world in astonishing ways. Carstensen is the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. With a Ph.D. in psychology, she has researched the aging brain most of her life. Her book is comprehensive and concise. It covers health, psychology, Social Security, Medicare, the future of technology in aging, future problems and reshaping the global phenomena of aging.
80 is the new 60, she asserts, and with that brings us a long bright future and a few problems. Most Americans will outlive their financial resources and that alarms her. At a time when the aging are living longer and healthier lives, our financial planning has failed us.
The book was published in 2009, just after the economic downturn when the middle class lost nearly half their assets as measured in a decline of housing values and 401k portfolios. She has written the most insightful explanations of the problems facing Medicare and Social Security that I’ve found. There is no easy fix and her advice simply is to be prepared for major changes. Medicare will require new approaches first and rather soon. Social Security will come about a decade after. Be prepared for both.
Most people will continue to work until they are 80—if not fulltime, part time. Many serious diseases of the aging are in decline and she expects the same to happen with dementia. People who live to a healthy old age of 90 to 100 usually die quickly and easily. Those who have lingering and miserable deaths developed serious chronic problems in middle age, such as adult onset diabetes. She states that only four things are proven to increase healthy longevity: not smoking, alcohol in moderation, a Mediterranean-style diet and exercise.
True to her studies in emotional well-being, she believes a network of social relationships is essential—beyond family relationships. Most baby boomers have small families that cannot meet all the needs of their elders. Instead, she suggests that we cultivate social networks that are healthy, helpful and nourishing. She calls for four new visions: the capacity to envision a possibility for longer life that extends middle age into the 80s, to design a continued life of work (several careers or careers that morph over time), diversify what we consider to be our families and invest in our aging selves—both with healthy eating, exercise and learning.
Continued education and involvement in the community will cultivate relationships. Get rid of grudges, she says, and nourish your emotional life. Work longer, save more, take care of your body, expand your learning. She delves into detail on all of these suggestions with scientific research to back up her claims. We have to imagine what a large, aging population will look like in our society—as well as societies around the world—and that will require flexibility and adaptability to changing financial conditions.
More will be required by an aging population to become participants and not recipients of social programs. And this will be global, not strictly in our own country. Reading Carstensen’s book forced me to take a much broader look at aging, to challenge my opinions and reconsider nearly everything I’ve studied so far. It was as if I was lifting the veil from hidden knowledge and peering inside for the first time.