What ‘60 Minutes’ Got Right and Wrong About Aging
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The Fiscal Times
May 7, 2014

The 60 Minutes report, “Living to 90 and Beyond,” that aired this past Sunday on CBS profiled a new study underway by UC-Irvine, which has been examining the lifestyle factors that contribute to longevity. The study has been diving into the medical records of nonagenarians (people in their 90s) who decades ago lived at Leisure World, an “active” L.A. retirement community.   

The special took a selective slice of the research and turned it into a lengthy prime-time story. The narrative is a good one, and CBS should be applauded for giving airtime to population aging, one of the most consequential if underappreciated developments of 21st century life. As the 2010 S&P Global Aging Report put it, “No other force is likely to shape the future of national economic, health, public finances and policymaking than the irreversible rate at which the world population is aging.” 

Related:  3 Vital Lessons on Aging, Jobs and the Economy 

A century ago, people who lived longer than age 90 were a rare and stalwart breed. Today, they’re the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population, and projections to mid-century suggest that this phenomenon, with its vast implications, is only beginning. 

But “Living to 90 and Beyond” wasn’t without its faults. Below are two things that it got exactly right – and two things it didn’t.

What 60 Minutes Got Right
1. Lifestyle factors are critical. There has been a swell of  global attention these last few years to lifestyle factors and a “life course” of healthy aging. The United Nations held an historic summit to address “non-communicable diseases” (NCDs), while economic organizations like the OECD have correlated healthy aging to economic growth and development.

“Living to 90 and Beyond” gives much attention to the scientific research investigating lifestyle habits and healthy aging. They were right to do so. More is needed in this regard – and one can only hope that the 90+ research project at UC-Irvine will uncover new insights in mobility, bone and muscular health, vision, and skin, all areas that need more attention if we’re to translate healthy and active aging that gets at the heart of economic growth.

2. Alzheimer’s is exploding. Alzheimer’s is one of the greatest social and economic challenges of the 21st century. And given the current state of affairs, there is a lot of reason to worry. Nearly half of all nonagenarians will suffer some form of dementia, and our methods for treating and caring for those who suffer from dementia are costly and often inhumane. 

Related: 11 Reasons We Can’t Ignore Alzheimer’s Anymore 

We need to do better. There is probably no greater threat to the “miracle of longevity” than Alzheimer’s. A health challenge that becomes a social crisis will, by 2030, become a fiscal nightmare if we stay on today’s path.

What 60 Minutes Got Wrong
1. Work matters. The UC-Irvine study and the 60 Minutes coverage has gone to great lengths to show how active, engaged lifestyles can lead to better, healthier aging. “Living to 90 and Beyond” features no shortage of clips of fun-loving retirees dancing in banquet halls and filling out bingo cards. These activities are part of the picture, to be sure – but they miss the critical role of work. 

Work provides physical and intellectual stimulation, but it also keeps the fast-growing aging population involved in economic growth and the productive economy. What’s amazing about the data of the “seniors” at Leisure World is that most of them were in their late-50s and early-60s when the record-keeping began.

Related: 5 Key Insights Driving the Silver Economy 

That model of retirement is fully incompatible with 21st century longevity, and employment late is life becomes a tool for both individual longevity and broader economic success. This is such a vital piece of the conversation that it’s a shame it was fully overlooked in “Living to 90 and Beyond.” 

We also can’t ignore the essential role of eldercare in our 21st century work environment. People in their 50s, 60s, and 70s are entering a new and different phase, where they may need assistance for spouses or parents. Eldercare for the 21st century workplace is much like how we invented childcare several decades ago, when moms began entering the workforce with a vengeance.  

2. Financial planning is key. New research from the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies shows that the “readiness” for retirement among baby boomers and Generation X is concerning. The age-old schemes that once secured happy decades at the end of life for “sunrise specials” and bridge tournaments are not equipped for lives that stretch well into the 90s and 100s. 

And there is perhaps no question weighing more heavily on Americans’ minds now than how these finances are going to play out. With the rising costs of health care as well as long-term care, this can can’t be kicked down the road any further. The role for businesses, policy makers, financial advisers, and others becomes increasingly important. 

It’s hard to say whether the 60 Minutes piece was designed to be a celebration of longevity – or a warning signal. Population aging can certainly become the greatest success of the 21st century, or an albatross to progress. The fate – in our hands – is how we rethink and reimagine life and work in our era.   

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Executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is also managing partner at High Lantern Group and a fellow at Oxford University's Harris Manchester College.