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Reimagining Aging and Envisioning New Ways of Living

In William Shakespeare’s day, the average lifespan was such that it was acceptable for doomed protagonist Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet” to be a 13-year-old girl. She was, after all, entering the prime of her life. But things have changed since the late 1500’s. Now people live much longer. Yet a longer life expectancy brings forth a host of complex issues. For example, by 2050, it is estimated that about 21% of the population will be aged 65 and older. This dramatic shift in demographics means it’s time to start reimagining aging and envisions new ways of living and the value of elderly in society.

As life expectancy increases, a greater older population demands different things from society in general. Work, healthcare, retirement, and urban design must all change.

It’s time to re-evaluate the value of the elderly in society – to better serve them, and better serve society as a whole.

A demographic shift among the elderly means it's time to reassess work, retirement and the value of elderly in society
A greater elderly population means it’s time to reassess the value of the elderly in society.

A Ticking Time Bomb

Policy makers and institutions see the aging demographic as a time bomb that needs to be diffused. Why is this demographic shift viewed in such an ominous light?

Dr. Jack Rowe, professor of Health Policy and Management at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, offers valuable insight. Since 1950, the average global life expectancy has increased from 48 years to 66 years. As a considerable number of people are able to age successfully, Dr. Rowe posits that an appropriate amount of responsibility for care should shift from the individual to society.

Jack Rowe M.D. discusses how we value the elderly in society changes with shifting demographics.
Greater life expectancy means a dramatic demographic shift and a need to re-evaluate how we integrate the elderly into society.

Regrettably, the core institutions of our society – education, work, retirement, healthcare, infrastructure and urban design – were not planned to support the age distribution of the future society. With the society’s inability to develop approaches that will address the needs of an aging population, this demographic shift is indeed akin to watching a time bomb tick away.

Aging as a Holistic Experience

Reimagining Aging Infographics

Reimagining Aging Infographics

Reimagining aging and seeing how it is reshaping our societies requires a deeper understanding of aging. One has to remember that aging is a biological, psychological and cultural experience.

In biology, attempts to explain aging or senescence has been clustered into two main theories.

The first theory is called the programmed theory. This states that our body follows an internal biological clock since childhood. As we age, certain internal functions that have an influence on aging are either switched on or off.

The second theory is called the error or damage theory, and it approaches aging as being a result of external and environmental forces that gradually damage the body’s cells and organs.

Demographic Shift

On the other hand, the psychology of aging is often centered on mental acuity and capacity.  As humans age, they become more susceptible to a number of mental health issues such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. These mental health issues can impact a senior’s independence and ability to care for themselves. However, with advancements in medicine, the occurrence of these age-related diseases are often postponed. This means more and more elders are able to maximize a healthy lifespan.

Lastly, the cultural experience of aging varies from one group to another. The process of aging is welcomed and embraced in cultures where the value of elders in society is great. However, in cultures with a high regard for work, independence and self-reliance, aging may be viewed as a challenging phase. In highly-developed regions, such as the US and Europe, retirement homes for elders are common.

A demographic shift has placed greater emphasis on the elderly population and value of elderly in society
Growing old used to mean an exit from the workforce, but medical advances mean more elderly capable of working longer.

The Urgent Call for Reshaping our Views of Aging and the Value of Elderly in Society

Reimagining aging requires an evaluation of our core institutions. In order to prepare for the new age distribution, we have to look at which processes are not working anymore.

  • The healthcare system is already feeling the impact of an aging population. With more than 50 million seniors (65 years and older) in the US, 40% of the country’s hospital customer base are on Medicare. Reducing healthcare costs, developing new models for healthcare delivery, and expanding the eldercare workforce are just some of the ways the field can prepare for this demographic shift.
  • Infrastructure and urban planning need to be reassessed. Based on the 2017 Census Bureau estimates, the majority of the US population lives outside cities and around low-density and emerging suburban areas. However, suburban areas were designed for young families with access to cars, so the elderly may end up being stranded in the suburbs. Reimagining aging means creating areas where everyone has access to the services necessary to lead fulfilling and satisfying lives.
  • Financial and economic concerns are more distinct during retirement age. With a decreased income and increasing medical and healthcare expenses, financial instability at retirement sits as one of the top concerns of 8 out of 10 Americans. The average life expectancy was just 62 when the Social Security system was enacted in 1935. With a longer life expectancy for its beneficiaries, the Social Security Board of Trustees projected that the program’s resources will be depleted by 2035. Working beyond the age of 65 may just become the norm, and businesses and industries must be prepared to accommodate a much older workforce.

What a Difference a Century Makes

Shifting demographics necessitate changes for how we view the elderly.
Infrastructure, healthcare, and retirement are just a few societal tenets that must be changed with a reimagining of aging.

Who we are now, demographically-speaking is very different from who we were a century ago.

We need to reassess our policies, institutions, and infrastructures to face the challenges of this demographic shift. Likewise, how we structure our life stages may also need to be revisited.

With long years ahead of us after retirement, it is imperative for us to begin reimagining aging.

To Eat, Or Not to Eat: The Truth About Very Low-Carb Diets

Atkins. Paleo. Keto. The South Beach Diet. The Scarsdale Diet. Trends in healthy eating come and go, each with their own foibles and particulars. But the one constant they share is their disdain of carbohydrates. A big bowl of pasta? Bad. A ham sandwich on two thick slices of white bread? Evil. A doughnut? Certain doom! This has, of course, led to some to adopt extreme, very low-carb diets. Unfortunately, new research has explored the long-term effects of those kinds of eating habits, and guess what? A very low-carb diet isn’t so good for you, either.

Infographics - To Eat, Or Not to Eat: The Truth About Very Low-Carb Diets

Low Carbs Diet

As recent studies have shown, the science behind low-carb diets highlights the body’s need for carbs in some form. And for those who want to live long, it’s a need that shouldn’t be ignored.

Carbohydrate Aversion

According to the science behind low-carb diets, eliminating carbs is not the key to a healthier, longer life. Recent studies show that a very low-carb diet is detrimental to long-term health. The Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study analyzed mortality rates based on data from more than 15,000 middle-aged women and men over 25 years. It showed that adults who received less than 40% of their daily caloric intake died an average of four years earlier than those who received between 40% to 70% of their caloric intake from carbs.

Dr. Sara Siedelmann, the lead researcher of the study, said, “our data suggest that animal-based low-carbohydrate diets, which are prevalent in North America and Europe, might be associated with shorter overall lifespan and should be discouraged.”

But what about all the diets that have swept the world, such as Atkins, Keto, South Beach, and Paleo? Are they more dangerous than they are helpful? Not necessarily. These very low-carb diet plans are effective for short-term weight loss, but not always sustainable as long-term plans.

The truth about very low-carb diets is that they are never a wise decision. Carbohydrates are fundamental to our diet, as they provide our bodies with energy and preserve muscle. Cutting out a major food group results in deficiencies because the body doesn’t get the nutrition it needs. A very low-carb diet does not provide enough fiber, antioxidants, B vitamins, and phytochemicals like folate, beta-carotene, and vitamin C. Over time people increase the likelihood of getting heart diseases, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer.

Different carbohydrate diets graph
Diets high in carbs are unhealthy, but so are diets far too short on carbs.

Furthermore, other organs are damaged. As people cut carbs, they rely on meat, eggs, and dairy to feel energized or satiated. This takes a toll on the heart, liver, pancreas, and other organs.

That’s the truth about very low-carb diets.

The Alternative – The Science Behind Low-carb Diets

Very low-carb diets may be all the rage, but they're not necessarily that healthy.
The science behind low-carb diets points to the body’s actual need for some form of carbohydrate.

While not revolutionary, the tried and tested approach to weight loss and long-term health has always been mindful moderation. Carefully choosing what to consume instead of cutting whole food groups out is best.

So is choosing to eat unprocessed foods over chemically-processed foods. Processed foods are low in nutrients and fiber, and high in preservatives, salt, sugar, artificial ingredients, and trans fats. They are also designed for over-consumption.

Alternatively, choosing carbohydrates that are whole foods such as quinoa, oats, sweet potatoes, apples, kidney beans, chickpeas, and nuts is a safe bet. Choosing plant-derived proteins and fats over animal-derived ones can help prolong lifespans. Eating these foods will provide the right amount of fiber, protein, good fats, nutrients, and energy.

The truth about very-low carb diets: Don't go overboard.
Moderation is the key to health – and this includes the limiting of carbohydrate intake.

The Truth about very Low-Carb Diets

It’s undeniable that low-carb diets can be effective in losing weight, improving glucose control, and lowering blood pressure. But when taken to the extreme, those very low-carb diets do not provide all the components needed to make the human engine run smoothly. The skill to learn now is discerning which foods you can replace unhealthy carbs with to enjoy a balanced diet.

The science behind low-carb diets reveals the truth about extreme diets.
What’s worse for long-term than eating too many carbs? Eating too few carbs.

The truth about very low-carb diets is that there is a multitude of eating options to achieve whatever health goal you may have.

The trick is to choose the healthiest one.

The Truth About Low-Carb Diets Infographic

Low Carbs Diet

Amy Gutmann’s Leadership is Empowering the University of Pennsylvania

Amy Gutmann President of the University of Pennsylvania cartoon
As president at UPenn, Amy Gutmann values her leadership role by empowering students to pursue change for the betterment of society.