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Octogenarian Finds It's Time to Look to the Future

May 15, 1988|HAROLD P. LEVY

If you've ever dreamed of living to a really ripe old age--say 100 or 115 or longer--your chances of making it improve every day.

For my part, it was only after turning 80 last year and starting to ponder about my future that I became aware how the outlook on aging has changed, how numerous experts in the field of aging no longer consider 80 the mark of old age it once was thought to be. Rather, they now see the normal life span for Americans extending beyond 100 years.

Though I never counted on it, the notion started to blossom in my mind that being present to greet the 21st Century--a mere 12 years away--could be an enchanting idea, particularly since at 80 I could feel no appreciable difference in my state of well being from the way it was at 79--or 70. Or back to my 60s for that matter.

Somehow in my advancing years I rarely gave the subject of growing old the attention it may have deserved. Nor did I retire from my active working career in public relations until three months after reaching that landmark 80.

Whether or not it was a benign lesson absorbed many years ago about the mystique of aging that shielded me from concern about advancing years, I always remembered it. And it no doubt left its mark.

In the later '30s and early '40s, during the decade that my wife and I lived in New York City, I came to realize that climbing subway steps to street level often left me panting. Failing heart? Lung problems? I hastened to our family doctor to check it out.

In the course of his examination, he said: "You're past 30 aren't you?"

"Yes, 33."

"Well," he continued, "the human body starts deteriorating at 30. You're in great health. Get going!"

After retiring. I made what I considered a practical decision.

While feeling perfectly comfortable at 80, I determined that if I were going to think about the uncertain/uncertainties of aging or to talk about them, I could do no better than consult with experts in the field. Indeed, it occurred to me that I might turn up information worth passing along to others in the ranks of aging--or those in any forward-looking age group.

Which led me to the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center at USC and to its associate dean, David A. Peterson Ph.D., a career gerontologist.

Established in 1965, the USC center is recognized as the largest among about 200 U.S. research-teaching centers offering degrees in gerontology and enjoys a reputation in keeping with its standing.

Peterson, 50, joined the center 10 years ago, coming from the University of Nebraska where he was director of the gerontology department.

"There is no reason," Peterson said, "why human life expectancy in the United States should not extend to 100 or 115 years in the foreseeable future . . . barring such mishaps as getting hit by a truck or falling off a bridge."

That prospect, he noted, is in keeping with changing life expectancies in the United States that keep extending as advances in medicine, medical care and public health proliferate.

Some social scientists would raise the ante over Peterson's projected 100-to-115 life expectancy. Sociologist Arthur B. Shostak Ph.D. of Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia cites a forecast by fellow scientists that by 2030, the average human being will live to 120 or more.

"Most of us have an internal stereotype about aging," Peterson said. "It used to be that 65 was considered old age. Now it is more like 75 or 80--or even 90.

"All of us are equipped with a biological clock that will begin to run down around ages 110 and 115."

In 1900, less than than 1% of the nation's population was 85 and older. The U.S. Bureau of Census now projects that by 2050, 20 million Americans will be in that age group.

With the promise of life extended far beyond the years of our ancestors, how will the "new elderly" cope with considerably longer life, recognizing that relatively few--myself included--likely ever thought of it, let alone planned for it?

"Much of the physical and attitudinal well-being of the new elderly will depend on their own behavior patterns," Peterson advises, "and this cannot be overly emphasized."

To those of advanced age who have lived frantic lives, are inveterate smokers, heavy drinkers, excessive eaters, it may be a little late to change.

But it is rarely too late.

Says Peterson: "The human body is highly regenerative. It is rarely too late to give up excesses."

And a final word from him: "It does not take a crusader to encourage moderation in personal behavior--no matter what your age may now be."

Well armed with insights into life after 80, what remained for me was to learn what experts have to say about living in comfort on the way to 100 or 115.

My next visit was with the Andrus Center's resident expert on the subject: Victor Regnier, AIA, who proved as communicative as were others in the center.

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