June 14, 2014

Longer life can be healthy, but challenges loom

At a New York City seminar, discussions of preserving physical and mental health were tied to the desire to make today's increased lifespans more productive.

People who try to train their brains with puzzles, word games and the like will see some benefit – getting really good at those kinds of activities.

However, people who want to preserve and even increase brain health will get better results from 45 minutes of aerobic exercise twice a week, participants in a seminar on aging and generational change said here during the weekend.

“Physical exercise is the best way to increase brain function,” said Dr. Ursula Staudinger, director of the Columbia Center on Aging at Columbia University. “You can turn back the clock a little; you can rejuvenate the brain.”

Discussions of preserving physical and mental health were tied to the desire to make today’s increased lifespans more productive.

Staudinger, who studies the way in which aging processes can be modified, was among about a dozen experts who spoke to journalists and others at the Columbia University School of Journalism. She also talked about preconceptions on aging and the high levels of variability in functioning among older people.

“Aging and old age can be quite different if we decide to make use of its potential,” she said. “The curve can be shifted.”

Andrea Campbell, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the country is in reasonably good shape as it deals with the coming generation of baby boomers. Today’s older people have near universal health care, possess modest but steady income and serve as a financial bulwark for younger relatives.

“Older people are three times more likely to give money to adult children than to receive from them,” Campbell said.

However, Peter Meunnig, a Columbia physician, painted a grimmer future for the United States’ older generations, including significant financial problems for social programs such as Medicare and Social Security. Other factors, some unexplained, are affecting older people’s health adversely, Meunnig said, so that among some older groups, life expectancy is actually going down.

“It’s hugely abnormal to see the decline,” he said.

A current generation of leaders should be thinking about policies and new initiatives with proven benefits, such as walkable cities, to ensure better health in generations to come, Meunnig said.

Participants talking about intergenerational interests tended to dismiss the idea that the baby boomers, more than 70 million of them, are really a unified generation.

“The only thing that baby boomers have in common is that they think they’re fascinating,” said Donna Butts, executive director of the Washington-based nonprofit Generations United.

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