Society’s Role in Healthy Aging

Age alone is a poor predictor of current or future physical and mental health. Indeed, in adulthood, education better predicts physical and mental capacity—even life expectancy—than does age. In an opinion piece in the Boston Globe, Stanford psychologist Laura L. Carstensen and John W. Rowe, MD, professor of health policy and management at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, write that discussions of aging societies often obscure the cumulative effects of disadvantage.

The dramatic variability in quality of life during most of what we call “old age” is not based on good luck or solely on good genes. Rather, it reflects a range of behavioral, social, economic, and occupational factors that, at their core, stem from differences in education and social class.

Among less advantaged people, the cumulative effects of poverty, harsh working conditions, and persistent stress leave an alarming proportion of people with little in the way of personal resources.

As the population rapidly ages, say the authors, we must proceed simultaneously along two paths. First, we must enhance our ability to limit dependency while building our capacity to care effectively for those in need. Second, we need to increase the productivity and engagement of able older citizens, both in the labor force and as volunteers in their communities. In the longer term, though, the most effective way to achieve fair and equitable aging societies is to invest in education, beginning in preschool and continuing all the way through life.

Read the full Boston Globe opinion piece here.