Spearheading the Longevity Revolution: Sounding a Call to Action, a Renowned Expert on Aging Examines the Health, Economic, and Social Challenges and Opportunities of Growing Older in Today's Society

By Perry, Patrick | The Saturday Evening Post, July-August 2008 | Go to article overview

Spearheading the Longevity Revolution: Sounding a Call to Action, a Renowned Expert on Aging Examines the Health, Economic, and Social Challenges and Opportunities of Growing Older in Today's Society


Perry, Patrick, The Saturday Evening Post


As people live longer than ever, tough questions surface about the impact of aging on our population as a whole. Can we afford old age? How can we make the extra years productive personally and rewarding for society? Will Social Security and Medicare collapse under the pressure of growing numbers of retirees?

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In his latest book The Longevity Revolution: The Benefits & Challenges of Living a Long Life, Robert Butler, M.D., an internationally recognized expert in the field of aging and gerontology, grapples with these issues and presents an agenda for action.

The founding director of the National Institute on Aging and CEO of the International Longevity Center, Butler calls for a "colossal public-private research initiative" to combat disease, gain a better understanding of the biology of aging, and improve health promotion and healthcare. The man who coined the term "ageism" argues that the United States has not made the much-needed research investment in aging.

The Post spoke to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author about his latest book and what Americans can do to take advantage of the unprecedented leap in human life expectancy.

Q: What is the Longevity Revolution?

A: In Roman times, with the realities of infant mortality and women dying giving birth, the average life expectancy was about 20. In 1776, the average life expectancy in the United States was estimated by historical demographers to have been 35, with about two percent of the population over 65. By 1900, the average life expectancy was 47, with only four percent of the population over 65. By the end of the century, we suddenly have more than 12 percent with an average life expectancy essentially of 77. Nothing like this had happened in human history. It took 5,000 years to achieve. I call this unprecedented demographic transformation the Longevity Revolution.

Q: You've studied aging for more than 50 years and coined the term "ageism." American culture seems youth-oriented. As a society, are Americans increasingly afraid of getting older?

A: It's hard to answer that question with authority, but I can offer an impressionistic answer. We're a little more sensitive to aging than maybe we have been. I've had at least five calls from the press about John McCain, asking if he's too old to run for president, will he live long enough to live out his term, and should such an old person be elected president? I would remind them that Konrad Adenauer led post-World War Germany until age 87, while Charles de Gaulle was prime minister of post-World War France until age 78. Function is the issue, not age per se. I faced the same questions when Bob Dole ran. Many thought he would never outlive his presidency if elected. If he had been elected, he would have long since left the presidency and still be alive. While it's hard to give an objective measure, there may be some slight improvement.

Q: How do you get society to come to confront these important issues?

A: Perception depends a lot on the media. How did the media get people to consider that there might actually be climate change and global warming? It took a long time. Maybe the movie An Inconvenient Troth helped tip the scale.

I depend a lot on the media to sensitively discuss the issues of aging. Of course, we definitely need legislative support: discrimination doesn't wantonly occur. What can we do to improve the health of people? One issue that always seemed a very important part of people's fear of aging is disease and decrepitude. If we can finally eliminate Alzheimer's disease and frailty, people would look at aging in a very different way and wouldn't be so frightened by it.

Individually, we fear growing old. We don't want to think about it too much. I don't think we want to be morbidly preoccupied with aging, but we have to think about it some or we'll pay a personal price from lack of planning. …

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