A White House conference for the first time addressed elder abuse. Greenlee said participants talked about financial exploitation and several government agencies such as her own and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and businesses attended.
“Cognitive impairment is at [the] root of [the] problem,” she said. “It knows no age. It is prevalent in people who are older [but it could be brought on by] traumatic brain injury.”
Laura L. Carstensen, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Stanford University’s Center for Longevity, said connecting aging to disabilities will require changing the conversation about the human life span to focus on seniors rather than just youth.
“Long life in the 21st century,” Carstensen said. “[There is such] complacency [in the use of that phrase]: [we are] familiar with [the] terms. We forget the unprecedented time. In a blink of an eye, we [have] doubled [the human] life span.”
She said that, because of 18 or 20 outliers and through human evolution, life became more extended.
In the 1800s, Carstensen said, a person could only expect to live to his or her 30s. In 1900, the life expectancy expanded to age 47. By the end of the 1900s, it reached age 77. In the new millennium, the average human life span extends to age 78. Additionally, the nation’s fertility rates dropped by half, overtime.
Meanwhile, she added that, in the 20th century, seniors made up four percent of the country’s population. Currently, seniors make up 13 percent of the nation’s population. By 2030, seniors are projected to make up 20 percent.
“The changes in odds of surviving [are dramatic],” Carstensen said. “[The changes in age distribution are] everywhere. [Social] pyramids are being re-shaped. This means babies for the first time can grow older. It is not discussed [in terms of] older people but [in terms of] babies.”
She said, in terms of the survival rates of infants and children, the distant past held high mortality rates. In the 1800s, about 20 percent of the nation’s population died before age 5 and many more died before the age of 12. The percentage of maternal deaths were also high. Science, technology and the study of disease reversed the trends of high infant, child and maternal mortality.
“Garbage collection has [as] much to do with longevity as medicine,” Carstensen said. “[So does] lower fertility rates, an investment in [infants and children], [the end of] exploitive [child labor], more schools [that] charted nutritional needs of your children and food for life programs to prevent pellagra, rickets and gout.”
Most technological and medical advances were aimed at youth, she said.
“We did things to support young life,” Carstensen said. “We [made] advances in technology and medicine. But [our] ancestors did not try to relate [to] aging professionals. [The] actuaries are terrified.
“Humans are creatures of culture. [Around the world, there are] more populations of people [around the age of] 60 than [there are aged] 15. [All of] these things were built for young people.
Trains and hotels are for younger people. Speed, agility and facility [are affiliated with the] young. We only recently lived in [a] world that focused on aging. We need [to make] changes to [the] culture. Science and technology got us where we are today.”
She explained that the national conversation about the human life span should be changed to focus on aging.
“We need [to talk about] Alzheimer’s disease, congestive heart failure and osteoporosis,” Carstensen said. “We need to know what good deaths look like after long, satisfying lives. We need to look at long-term planning, 40 to 60 years out. We need to think [about] lifelong investments to help those over 65.
“[The youth] of today [will be the] centenarians of [the] 22nd century. They are here. It is [our] duty to take them through [the next] decades of life. Aging is not the problem. We must improve aging for all of the population or we will all fail. Societies [must] not only be saved but improved. Aging is inevitable. How we age does not. In the end, it will be about aging. It will be about long life. And it will be our story to tell.”
This article was originally published March 10, 2014 on the website of PharmPsych.com, one of seven websites that comprise The Pharm Psych Network, a medical communications and education company.