What is Your Life Expectancy?
S. Jay Olshansky, Ph.D., is an author, professor and worldwide expert on the subject of an aging. He discusses recent research on aging and how you can get a much better idea of your life expectancy.
Frank: I'm honored to have Jay Olshanksy with us today. Jay received his PhD in Sociology at the University of Chicago in 1984. Wow... He is currently a Professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and research associate at the Center of Aging at the University of Chicago and at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The focus of his research to date has been on estimates of the upper limits to human longevity, exploring the health and public policy implications associated with individual and population aging, forecast of the size, survival, and age structure of the population, pursuit of scientific means to slow aging in people, and global advocations of the re-emergence of infectious and parasitic diseases. Dr. Olshanksky is on the Board of Directors at the American Federation of Aging Research, and is the first author of the Quest for Immortality, Science at the Frontiers of Aging. Jay, welcome to the Aging Boomers.
Jay O: Thank you for having me, and just a reminder, I'm 60 years old and that is not old. By any standard and definition of aging, I can tell you, by the way, 60 used to be considered old by many people. In our modern era, 60 is actually very young. Even 70, by many standards, is very young. I just have to correct you from the start.
Frank: We're... I know you're not old. Actually, I got you beat. I'm older than you, so.. You're right, it's not old. We're youngsters, I agree with you. Just congratulations with everything that you've done. I mean, the introduction I gave you, we probably could've spent 1/2 hour just talking about everything you've done and all your accomplishments. Just want to thank you for everything you've done in your career, an we're just thrilled to have you on the show.
Jay O: Thank you. It's an exciting field to be in right now especially. There's so many things happening.
Frank: So, I don't think we have to tell people we're living longer on average. Everybody knows that. It's due to a lot of different factors which we can talk about like warding off a lot of other diseases that may have killed us in the past and aren't today. But, I think we talk within the industry, we kind of chuckle when we say the 'Silver Tsunami' is coming or is hitting right now. People kind of laugh it off a little bit, but I think it's a serious issue and I'm worried not only whether we're ready in this country for this but around the world. What are your thoughts on that?
Jay O: Well, in terms of this concept of Silver Tsunami and the role of people, there's a tendency of many people to look at this aging in the population in the 'negative' light: to be fearful, to be scared, and at one level that's true. Look, this is what's going on. If you were essentially standing on the shoreline looking at a population heading towards you, the baby boom generation, born between 1945 and 1964 is just now hitting the shoreline. That's why they're calling it a tsunami. There are roughly 10,000 people turning 65 every year for the next 15-20 years. So, the number of people that are going to reach older age is huge, and it is growing very rapidly. Now, on the one hand, we can look at it at a 'positive' light. There's going to be a significant impact on age entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. But, please don't look at it only in a negative light. You can also, the aging of the population and the life expectancy we're enjoying should be viewed in a positive light. We should be enjoying the success of advances in public health and medicine that have gotten us this far. There are a number of challenges that we face, and I think that's certainly the topic of discussion today. But we need to be cautious to not present aging only in a negative light. By the way, when we talk about aging, think of it in two ways. They're related but we need to distinguish between them. One is life extension, that's what you first referred to which is living longer. The average lifespan was about 50 at the beginning of the 20th Century. It is now closer to 80, especially for women, it's even a little bit higher. Population aging refers to a number of old people reaching ages 65 and over. That's related but you can actually have a decline in life expectancy and an increase in population aging at some places that's exactly what's happening. So, we're a very unusual demographic event that we're facing now and the bottom line is most countries are not prepared for it. In fact, most people that are aging now, especially the baby boomers, have not prepared themselves adequately to the number of years they are likely to be spending in retirement. That's why you rather see these interesting advertisements, for example, from the insurance company Prudential where they show these wonderful ads illustrating that most people don't really have a concept of how much longer they're going to live after they retire and what the consequences of that are. So alerting people to the degree to which these changes are occurring, how much longer they're going to live, how to prepare for deaths. That's what we're dealing with now.
Frank: If there was such a think, you know, you lived your life, you lived to whatever, 85 or 90 years old and go to sleep and still pretty healthy; no one really have to take care of you and you don't wake up, that's one thing. But I guess being in the business, I work with families each and everyday whose loved ones, parents, aunts, and uncles may have been diagnosed with some form of dementia like Alzheimer's, and financially, they're not in a position to take care of them. I guess that's more what I'm referring to as. Is this country ready because there's so many people out there that need supervision, that need care, they don't have the dollars to be taken care off in a way they should an it's a scary thing. So, I guess that's more of what I'm talking about. Is our country ready?
Jay O: The answer is no we're not We face this unusual dilemma. We got exactly what we wished for which is longer life. We reduced the risk of infectious diseases early so we live longer. We're now saving people from dying from cardiovascular diseases and cancer with much greater success. You have to realize that in the world of aging, death is a zero sum game. It means that if we lower the risk of death from one disease, something else must rise because death is inevitable in all living things. So, in humans for example, when you lower the risk of heart disease and cancer, you expose the person saved to the population saved to an elevated risk of other diseases. You mentioned one of the most critical ones that we're concerned about and that's dementia, Alzheimer's and related conditions. That's what we're not prepared for. I think many people don't quite realize what the consequences of success are if we continue to go after a major fatal diseases as we have. I'm not saying we shouldn't by the way. What I'm saying is we face a very unusual dilemma and what we do know is that Alzheimer's disease and other related dementia are on the rise and able to rise dramatically in the coming decades. So, people are not only going to be exposed to the risk for a longer time period. They will experience these diseases for a much longer time period. I think a lot of folks are simply not aware of it and certainly not prepared for it. We have to be aware these changes are forth coming.
Frank: Actually, I just saw something today from the Alzheimer's Association. It's been talked about that Alzheimer's is the 6th leading cause of death. Today, they announced it's the 3rd leading cause of death which is kind of scary, not surprising to me, but a little scary. I interviewed a scientist recently on the show that said that the likelihood of finding a cure for someone with Alzheimer's is pretty remote, at lease in our generation. What they're concentrating on is trying to prevent someone from getting it. So, I don't know what your thoughts are to that statement.
Jay O: Well, this researcher is right. Look, people who already have Alzheimer's are not likely to experience the reversal in their lifetime. The science is not far enough advanced to essentially reverse damages that already occurred in the brain or which has accumulated in the body, to say the body is just aging in general by the way. We're not going to be reversing aging or growing younger. The likelihood of reversing Alzheimer's disease is extremely remote. There's a lot of folks who already have it. So, for them they've got a very difficult road ahead. Is there a prospect for preventing it entirely? Right now there isn't anything in the pipeline. But there are researchers working on it. I think that's probably where their focus is appropriately so trying to find a way to delay the onset or prevent it all together, or at least lower the symptoms associated with it. Actually, there is something that we can do now. We know at least the evidence has began to emerge that can influence the rate of progression of Alzheimer's disease. There's two things actually; one of which is basic education. Believe it or not, acquiring an education, the more that you have the better off you are in terms of either delaying the onset or the progression of the Alzheimer's disease, and perhaps more importantly, addressing the consequences associated with having it. The other factor that seems to influence it to some degree, these are marginal improvement, is exercise. I will repeat that word several times during this interview because exercise seems to be the only equivalent of the fountain of youth that exist today and has a positive effect on just about everything. But don't hold your breath on anything that's going to deal with Alzheimer's for people that already have it. I'd be very cautious about claims that we're going to be preventing it anytime soon.
Frank: Yeah, it's interesting. What's also interesting, I know you mentioned to me before we got on the air that you've been involved in this project and this website that hasn't been announced yet. So, I'm kind of excited to hear more about it. You call it Face My Age. Tell us more about what that's all about
Jay O: Well, what we know in the world of aging science is that the children of long lived people, people who make it to their 90's or 100's tend to look younger than other people their age. We have strong evidence for this which means the people who tend to look younger than others their age are likely to live longer, in some instances, live healthier. So, we've actually over several years timely developed a technology that allows us to calculate or measure a person's facial age relative to other people their age. So, this website is about to launch. It will launch in the next week or so right around the beginning of July. It's called facemyage.com and you will essentially be able to go in there, upload a picture of yourself. You can use your iphone or whatever technology that you have and fairly quickly, get a number that tells you what the age your face is relative to the people your age. So, you and I are about 60, we upload our picture. Hopefully, it would come back indicating that we might look like we're 50 and that sometime in the future we've added additional...
Frank: Maybe I look like 50. I don't know about you.
Jay O: Yes, I know, and I will look like 40. So you would essentially look 10 years older than me, and well both be younger than our chronological age. I couldn't resist Frank
Frank: Yeah, you are quick!
Jay O: It's very exciting technology. And the other thing is we're going to be providing is an estimate of duration of life. It may sound like a game but it's not. The insurance companies do the same thing when they do underwriting for people. But this technology incorporates an incredible amount of detail information and we generated answers within 60 seconds; it may even be less than that by now. So, when you get an opportunity, when technology is turned on facemyage.com. Go to it, upload your photograph, see how well it works. It is absolutely remarkable in how accurate it is.
Frank: So, I can understand insurance companies going on it, but why would someone want to know this information about themselves.
Jay O: For example, if you're planning for a retirement, the first question you asked me is, "Are we ready?" One of the reason's we're not ready for aging is because we're not planning for it properly. So one of the ways to plan for it is to get some reliable estimate of how long you're likely to live. Now remember, these estimates apply to population since they don't apply to individuals. They do reliably predict how long people like you are likely to live. So, you would want to know for example, if you're likely living in your 90's or 100's or not. If you're planning for retirement, it is absolutely critical information to have. It also tells you, by the way, if certain part of your face are aging more rapidly than others, you have certain risk factors that are influencing your subsequent survival. So, if there are changes that are occurring around your mouth for example, it may indicate that you've been a smoker or past smoker. There may be other things you can do to alter your risk factors to improve the quality of your health and duration of life. So, there's lots of uses for this where we're anticipating the surgeons using it for before and after pictures. To assess the face age individuals going through surgical procedures. There's a wide variety of ways in which this information can be useful. Pension funds should be interested in this. They need to know how long people are likely to live. This is a very quick way of generating an assessment of how long pensioners are likely to live. There's essentially no limit to the extent to which this technology can be used. It's going to look like a game to some people. It is not. It's a serious sign applied to this issue of duration of life and using a technology that many people would never think would be relevant what it is.
Frank: Not just the technology, mentality obviously, all the research has gone into it
Jay O: Yes, decades. The technology is going to look like it's really slick, real fast, 60 seconds, but the research that went in to the development to it took decades. And that's what's so exciting for us is the development of something new that there should be some interest to a wide variety of people, young and old. It could be used for fun purposes. It could be used in order to compare your relatives to your friends. Actually, now I can't wait to see how old your face is relative to mine.
Frank: When are you going to do it? Did you already do it?
Jay O: No, the technology is not yet..It'll be within the next week. But I have a pretty good idea that my face age is going to come in younger than yours, but we can test that.
Frank: Yeah, we will test it. I'll be talking to you next week. So here's the concern I have about it. Someone goes on there, an individual goes on there, and for whatever reason showing their life isn't going to be that long.
Jay O: Uhmm
Frank: So, the negative side is, well, they give up. They go, "I'm not living that long, so should I bother exercising?" And the other side of it is, what controlled you over that prediction, can you then say, I better start exercising so I can prove it wrong?
Jay O: Well, that's what we're hoping that if people see that is seems to be aging more rapidly than they should, we're hoping they begin to adapt healthier lifestyles that will allow them to age healthier into the future. Remember, our goal in the world of aging research is not to make people live longer. Our goal is to make them look healthier. If you can see it in your face and all of the other data that your provided for us, it's not like people don't know what they need to do to live healthier longer. We know it's diet and exercise. We know these are two of the most important things we can do to have an immediate impact. And of course, to avoid the major risk factors that may lead to accelerated facial aging like smoking or excessive exposure to sun, obesity. There's a whole suite of things that influence the rate of which we synapse or grow old our age. It's not that we don't know how to modify them, we do. So, we're hoping it leads into the right action to improve their health and quality of life.
Frank: So, someone had some plastic surgery done by choice. Does that eliminate them from this?
Jay O: No, that's actually one of the questions we ask, if whether or not they had plastic surgery. Believe it or not this technology is capable of picking up whether you had plastic surgery, but it's one of those pieces of information that we like to have. We also want to now what your level of education is, what your race is, gender, marital status. All these variables influence your future duration of life and they're all take into account in this new technology in ways that often haven't been done before. If you've been underwritten by an insurance company, you realize they do this very quickly, they sign a limited amount of information. In many ways this technology will be more reliable than the way in which traditional underwriting is done now. Look, I'm not going to lie to people. If their face age leads us to believe that their older than their chronological age, that's what we're going to say. And that may very well be the reality. Remember, anytime there's an estimate of duration of live of somebody, that means that 1/2 the population is going to live longer than expected, and 1/2 are going to die sooner. It's pretty useful to know which 1/2 you're likely to be in, the longer-lived side or the shorter-lived side. So. I'm not lying to people. It's based on real science.
Frank: So, somebody says, "I don't want to do that. My mom lived until she was 100, my dad lived to 98, I'm going to probably be living a long life. " Is there any truth to that?
Jay O: Yes, absolutely. In fact, there's an old saying on the field of aging, "If you want to live a long life, choose long-lived parents." We know that to be true and that's actually, by the way, the basis for the face aging. We know that the children of long-lived people tend to look younger. They tend to live longer. So, the importance of genetics influences duration, health, and quality of life is absolutely critical. By the way, there's general evidence that we tend to inherit our longevity from our mother ore so than our father. They both influence, of course, but absolutely, genetics is important, One of the first questions you asked is how long did your parents live, how long did your grandparents live, what did they die from if they did die. There are all important variables. The longest lived person in the world, her name was Jean .... She lived for 122 years and researches looked at the history of her family. Going back to generations, she was from southern France. I think the average duration of life of her ancestors was in the 70's during the time in which life expectancy in France was in the 30's. So, there's no question there's a strong genetic component.
Frank: That's very, very interesting. So, we only have a couple of minutes. I know we talked about physical exercise. Can you get a little more detail what statistic show. I mean, should someone be running, walking, should they be doing weights? What do you recommend and is it obviously vary on their age and physical ability, of course?
Jay O: It varies from one person to the next. Some people are incapable of running, some people shouldn't be running because of injury to their knees and hips that occur during the course of their life. But the bottom line is, you need to treat your body in very many ways like you treat your car, at least the way you should treat your car. You take it in for an oil, lube, and filter frequently, you know it runs better when you do that. You take it in for a tune up, you know it runs better when and you do that. The same thing applies to your body. If you treat it right, you feed it the right kinds of food, you exercise your body. You're increasing the chances that you can live a healthier and longer life. Let me be real though. Even if you do everything right, I don't want this to sound negative, but it's the reality, you eat right, you exercise, you reduce your intake of calories, we still grow old. That's still going to happen. In all likelihood, we'll still get diseases associated with aging. Hopefully, they will be delayed or compressed in a short duration of time near the end of life. But the whole idea is to enjoy life for as long as we can for as healthy as possible. The benefits of exercise, let me be crystal clear on this, are instantaneous. We're not talking about to wait a day or week or a month or a year for benefit. Regardless of what age you are, whether you're 20, 60, 80, or 100, you should be exercising. That can be as little as walking, just being vertical: walking, moving, gardening. Any of those physical activities that involve movement are critical. When you're horizontal for any extended period of time, that's when you run into trouble. So, any kind of movement is good. Weight bearing exercises are wonderful. Anything that gets the heart rate up is great. Remember, it's going to vary from one person to the next. So, the first thing you need to do before you move into an exercise campaign of any kind is to have a conversation with your physician. What can i do, what am I capable of, what do I need to avoid given the risk factors that I have and the medications that I'm on. You can't provide some kind of a generic summary for everyone. It has to be unique. But the bottom line is exercise works. It works for everyone in every age and the effects are instantaneous. Let me be clear by the way. There's a lot of people selling pills, potions, and hormones out there with all kinds of claims about what they can do. Guess what? All the benefits that are associated with any of the pills and potions including nutritional supplements, you can get for free with exercise. So, there's no question that it works, and it's an extraordinarily powerful influence in health and quality of life.
Frank: Just great info. Jay, thanks so much for being on the show. We didn't even talk about books you wrote. How can people get more information about what you're doing, your research, and of course, your books.
Jay O: It's easy enough to go online and just Google my name, Jay Olshansky. They could go to my website. On my website, it has free access to most of the articles I've published, stories, interviews that I've done, and they can even access information on books that I've written. The newest book that I wrote is called "The Measured Breath of Life." It just came out last year and it explains why we live as long as we do.
Frank: Great. And the website is Jay Olshansky.com?
Jay O: Uh, goodness. You caught me! Actually, I don't know, but if you google my name, it's easy enough to find.
Frank: That's spelled OLSHANSKY. Jay, thanks so much for joining us. I'm going to be talking to you next week. Everybody go to starting July 5th, www.facemyage.com, and I will announce to all of our listeners who looks younger, Jay or I. I will get that information next week. So Jay, thanks for joining us on the Aging Boomers. Thank you all for joining us. Please continue to support our podcast. Go to www.theagingboomers.com, you could go to iTunes, download the app on your iPhone or android phone as well, and send it to all your friends and family. Thanks very much. Be safe out there, and we will be talking to all of you very soon. Thanks so much.
Jay O: Thank so much for having me.
Frank: Thanks Jay.