By 2015, 46 million Americans will be over the age of 65. As members of the baby boomer generation pass the traditional retirement age, our standards for aging are steadily changing.
A generation ago, the age of 40 was widely considered to be the start of middle age. In 1932, American psychologist Walter Pitkin published a self-help book titled “Life Begins at Forty,” a concept which he proclaimed, “is the revolutionary outcome of our New Era. Today it is half a truth. Tomorrow it will be an axiom.”
Pitkin was referring to the fact that the longevity which we take for granted today is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was not until the start of the 20th century that the state of medical knowledge advanced to the point that the average life expectancy in Western societies was able to reach 40. He was predicting that the trend would continue, and that as time went on and we learned more about how to preserve our health, we would be able to remain fit and active far longer. A few years later in 1935, when the federal government inaugurated the Social Security program, 65 was established as a reasonable age at which point American workers would be ready for retirement. It was thought that by that point the wear and tear of daily living had taken such a toll on their health and bodies that many would no longer be able to carry out their responsibilities in their workplace.
In other words, during that era, by age 65 most people had become “old,” both physically and mentally, and were being forced by the “infirmities of age” to give up the active pursuits of their younger years.
But over the past 80 years, with the further progress of medical science, those aging standards have become obsolete. In today’s culture, the attitude is that “60 is the new 40.” Many of those now reaching the traditional retirement age of 65 no longer consider themselves to be old, and are unwilling to give up their active lifestyles.
Furthermore, there is a growing recognition that remaining physically active is one of the best ways for older people to maintain and protect their health, adding not only to their longevity, but also to the quality of their lives as they age.
Many seniors who have been sedentary throughout their adult lives have been introduced to mild daily exercise as part of their recuperation from lifesaving medical procedures. For example, walking is a mandatory part of the rehabilitation process after open-heart surgery. Cardiac bypass patients are encouraged to get up and walk within three days of the surgery. When they go home, they are told to get up and walk around for five or ten minutes every hour, and to gradually increase the length of their walks as their stamina returns.
The walking strengthens their heart, lowers their blood pressure and builds up their muscle tone. Many of these patients, to their surprise, discover that they enjoy these long walks and find them relaxing, and continue with them voluntarily long after they have fully recovered from surgery.
Recovering cardiac surgery patients are also quickly started on low-impact exercises using light weights. The physical benefits from regular, moderate exercise are well documented. They include improved appetite and digestion, weight loss, more restful sleep, and relief from many of the normal bodily aches and pains that come with aging. There are also psychological benefits from becoming more physically active, such as reduced depression, anxiety and stress, and often an overall improvement in mood and outlook.
For others, remaining fit and active in their senior years is a conscious lifestyle choice. Many members of the baby boom generation who made vigorous exercise and activities like jogging an integral part of their daily lives have refused to give these activities up as they have gotten older, and are using some of the recent advances in sports medicine to enable them to continue. By the hundreds of thousands, they are routinely replacing their worn-out knees and hip joints so that they can keep playing tennis with their friends, or running along the jogging paths in local parks each morning.
As a result, it is no longer uncommon for even quite elderly people who have remained physically fit to continue their participation in the most active of sports. For example, the 2012 New York City Marathon had 88 participants who were 75 or older. One of them was Joseph Pascarella of Brooklyn, who has run in 25 NYC marathons and is now 78. He finished the 26.2-mile-long course in 5 hours and 36 minutes. Joy Johnson, of Duluth, Minnesota, who is now 84, has run in 24 NYC marathons. She finished the race this November in 7 hours and 44 minutes.