How old is old?
A new U.S. Census report suggests that 90-plus is a better definition of the “oldest old” instead of the now common definition of 85-plus. That’s because this segment of the population is exploding.
From 1980 to 2010, the number of Americans 90 and over almost tripled to 1.9 million. It’s projected to more than quadruple by 2050, compared to a doubling of the population aged 65 to 89.
The New York Times explores what it takes to reach these ripe old ages, who ages well and why, and the science of aging.
The articles are online at nytimes.com/aging.
Here are summaries of some of the articles:
1) Old but Not Frail: A Matter of Heart and Head
It is one of the persistent mysteries of aging. Why would one person remain so hale and hearty while another, who had seemed just as healthy, start to weaken and slow down, sometimes as early as his 70’s?
Now scientists are surprised to find that, in many cases, a single factor — undetected cardiovascular disease — is often a major reason people become frail.
A second finding is just as surprising. Rigorous studies are now showing that seeing, or hearing, gloomy predictions about what it is like to be old can make people walk more slowly, hear and remember less well, and even affect their cardiovascular systems. Positive images of aging have the opposite effects.
The constant message that old people are expected to be slow and weak and forgetful is not a reason for the full-blown frailty syndrome. But it may help push people along that path.
It turns out that people who have more positive views about aging are healthier over time, according to a Ohio study. They lived an average of 7.6 years longer than those of a similar age who did not hold such views, and even had less hearing loss when their hearing was tested three years after the study began. The result persisted when the investigators took in account the participants’ health at the start of the study, as well as their age, gender, and socioeconomic status.
2) Live Long? Die Young? Answer Isn’t Just in Genes.
Recent studies find that genes may not be that important in determining how long someone will live and whether a person will get some diseases. That means it is generally impossible to predict how long a person will live based on how long the person’s relatives lived.
Life spans are not a trait like height, which is strongly inherited.
Among the chronic diseases of the elderly, Parkinson’s and heart disease have no detectable hereditary component, studies repeatedly find.
A strong family history of even a genetically linked disease does not guarantee a person will get it, and having no family history does not mean a person is protected. Instead, chronic diseases strike almost at random among the elderly, making it perhaps not so surprising that life spans themselves have such a weak genetic link.
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