C-Force: America Is Growing Old, and Not in a Good Way
In the eyes of the nation's health experts, the recent decline in the life expectancy of Americans that has occurred over the past few years should be especially alarming to us all. "America may still think of itself as a young nation, but as a society, it is growing old," a recent New York Times health editorial on the aging of America reminds us. As a result of this decline, our society is being transformed -- every part of it.
"In 2020 the share of people 65 or older reached 17 percent, according to the Census Bureau. By 2034, there will be more Americans past retirement age than there are children," writes the Times. It is also pointed out this is a demographic change that will affect every part of society, not just older Americans. We are seeing higher mortality rates among children and teenagers. As I highlighted last week, according to a Harvard Health report, younger people in America are dying at higher rates than their counterparts in other high-income countries, while the U.S. is also among the highest maternal and infant mortality rates when compared to other upper-income countries.
"Aging societies have different needs from young ones, and while America is far from the only country facing this shift, it has been slow to address it," says the Times editorial.
It is in the face of the growing reality of this societal transition that news came out that if folks would just eat better and follow healthy habits, then maybe they might live as much as 24 years longer. Seriously looking at making some significant lifestyle changes might sound like a no-brainer upon reading such good news. But, except for a more specific number of estimated years gained, it is a message that has been preached for a very long time -- to which we continue to see limited results.
As a case in point, September is Healthy Aging Month. September is almost over and it's like we hardly knew ya. This annual observance comes to us from the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. It is part of an information campaign that started more than 30 years ago to bring awareness of the physical and mental health issues of older adults and the need for maintaining a healthy lifestyle in helping to prevent common age-related health problems.
It got me thinking that maybe part of the problem is that we are not starting this effort in reforming lifestyle habits in the right place. Maybe we need to go deeper than trying to correct behavior. Maybe we need to start with a more fundamental approach, starting with a reacquaintance with the constitutional concept of the pursuit of happiness. And more to the point, the quest of defining one's purpose in life. It is not as if this has not been an explored concept by modern science. Come to find that many academic studies have found that having a sense of purpose in life provides an intrinsic motivation to adopt healthy behaviors.
A study posted on the National Library of Medicine in May 2022 proved to be a good example of this area of research. It systematically reviewed the determinants of purpose of life. Researchers looked at 44 studies and found it to be conceptualized in six ways: health and well-being, meaningful goals and purpose, inner strength, social relationships, mattering to others, and spirituality and religiousness.
According to the report, the authors defined purpose in life to include "three characteristics (a) having a stable far fetching goal; (b) a desire to achieve something meaningful beyond self; and (c) making progress to accomplish the goal."
"Having a purpose provides an intrinsic motivation to adopt healthy behaviors," the report concludes, with purpose in life "the cornerstone for successful aging and better health outcomes." Its development is seen as a lifelong process. "Older adults who have a sense of purpose value their life and adopt a healthy lifestyle paying attention to their diet, exercise and physical health," says the report.
Could it be that a disconnect between a clear and healthy sense of life's purpose -- be it young folks or old -- is creating a breeding ground for unhappiness and bad behavior?
Getting back to the concept of the pursuit of happiness seems a good concept to end on. In a recent Fortune health report, Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, says that "as we age, our time horizons grow shorter and our goals change. When we recognize that we don't have all the time in the world, we see our priorities most clearly. We take less notice of trivial matters. We savor life. We're more appreciative, more open to reconciliation. We invest in more emotionally important parts of life." When we do this, "life gets better, so we're happier day-to-day."
A few good habits that Fortune recommends you might consider adopting to help boost happiness as you age:
Focus on good relationships. Findings from the 85-year study point to good relationships as the top factor that leads to happiness as we age. Says social psychologist and author Katharine Esty, "Do they energize you or drain you? Are you excited to spend time with them, or dreading it? Consider spending more or all your time with those people who make you feel good."
"It's best to have a bouquet of friends," Esty explains to Fortune. "Some older, some younger, some the same age. There's pleasure in sharing memories and music you liked with people your own age, but there's also joy in learning and experiences with older and younger friends."
"We don't want to sell the myth that if I do the 'right thing,' I'll be happy all the time," says Dr. Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital. "The key is to build a foundation of well-being," he says.
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