Redefining Later Life

An article I noticed earlier today reminds me that the process of changing popular views on later life is an important part of generating wider public support for medical research into healthy life extension.

In 1900, average life expectancy in America was 49.2 years. Today it's 76.9 years. But Americans are not only living longer, now they're staying healthy longer. In the process, they are not only shattering old stereotypes, but redefining what it means to grow old in America.

"What are you supposed to do, sit around and die?" says Smith, 75, the owner of a 1973 Harley Davidson. "I don't think so. I've got too much to live for."

Consider that iconic vision of old age depicted in James Whistler's famous portrait of his mother, known as "Whistler's Mother." She is shown seated, grim-faced and feeble, with a lace cap covering a down-turned head. She was only 67 when she posed for the painting.

Now, consider Vera Gagen. She's only 54, though she could easily pass for 10 years younger. She's riding horses. She's taking salsa dancing lessons. The rocking chair is a long way off.

The stereotypes of later life held by many people - young and old - go a long way towards suppressing support for medical research into the aging process. Why live longer if it means more years as Whistler's Mother? In reality, of course, the era of later life as illustrated by Whistler's Mother is already long gone - but the stereotypes linger. 70 may be the new 50, but that hasn't quite sunk in yet for many people who have yet to get there.

The demonstrable improvements in quality and length of life achieved in past decades should be inspiring people to support more medical research aimed at greatly improving and speeding the process of healthy life extension. Advocates, futurists and scientist must keep working to ensure that this is the case.


The over-50s of today seem nothing like their counterparts twenty years ago. Better medicine has improved their physical status, however, the old "rocking chair" stereotype has yet to be overcome. Today's generation shouldn't worry too much by the time they pass the fifty-year mark around 2030 or so, as the technology of medical science would hav improved by leaps and bounds by then (hopefully), making them even more active.

Posted by: adbatstone at November 7th, 2004 7:56 PM

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