Americans living longer – but can we live better?

October 17, 2006

Early this morning (Tuesday, Oct. 17), the population of the United States swelled to 300 million, in part because of longer life expectancy. But while Americans are definitely living longer – the average man can expect to live about 72 years; the average woman about 75 years – they aren’t necessarily living better.

“When we think about medical advances that increase life expectancy, it’s important to recognize that, as of now, for every four years they add to life expectancy, only one of those years is a quality year,” says Cindy Bergeman, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame who studies resiliency and aging.

So what’s the recipe for increasing both quantity and quality of the life span? Obvious keys to success include not smoking, getting adequate exercise and moderate use of alcohol. But did you know that living on a farm or being married can add years to your life? Or that sleeping more than 10 hours a night or earning more than $50,000 per year actually can decrease life expectancy?

“Heavy smoking can reduce life expectancy by 12 years, and obesity can reduce it by 1.5 years for every 10 pounds a person is overweight,” Bergeman said. “However, being in a good marriage can add five years to a person’s life, and, according to a study of people who lived to be 100 or more, usefulness is found to be one of the best predictors of a long life.”

Bergeman explains that factors affecting longevity fall into three broad areas: biological, psychological and social.

Biological aging refers to anatomical and physiological changes that occur in various systems of our bodies – and includes our heredity – how long our parents and grandparents lived or what diseases run in our families.

Psychological aging refers to changes in behavior or personality, or changes in the ability to cope, adjust or adapt.

“Psychological aging also refers to an individual’s perception of the aging process,” Bergeman said. “Some perceive themselves as quite old whereas others feel ‘young at heart.’”

Social aging includes any age-related changes that result either from society or perceptions of societally imposed forces, which includes the expectation that older people are supposed to behave in a certain way.

“This relates to the idea that there’s a social clock out there that tells us when we should engage in certain behaviors,” Bergeman said. “It tells us when we should start school, get married, have children, or when to retire. There are societal expectations we often adhere to.”

Though the three broad areas of aging are interrelated, there also is a high degree of independence among the three, so a biologically young person can be psychologically very old, or vice versa, Bergeman explained.

“The more we learn about the body’s molecular changes as we age – the effects of nutrition, the ability to master stress or overcome grief – the more we can increase vitality in the later years rather than just increase the number of years,” she said.

Source: By Susan Guibert, University of Notre Dame

Explore further: Nuclear crossroad: California reactors face uncertain future

Related Stories

Nuclear crossroad: California reactors face uncertain future

November 28, 2015

Six years ago, the company that owns California's last operating nuclear power plant announced it would seek an extended lifespan for its aging reactors. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. envisioned Diablo Canyon as a linchpin ...

Time travel with the molecular clock

November 23, 2015

Migration isn't a new phenomenon, but new insights suggest that modern-day Europeans actually have at least three ancestral populations. This finding was published by Johannes Krause and prominently featured on the cover ...

Ice-age lesson: Large mammals need room to roam

November 2, 2015

A study of life and extinctions among woolly mammoths and other ice-age animals suggests that interconnected habitats can help Arctic mammal species survive environmental changes.

Ice 'lightning' may have helped life survive Snowball Earth

November 2, 2015

The ice sheets and glaciers that extend over roughly 11% of the Earth's land mass are home to a surprisingly abundant source of life. Sections of liquid water beneath and inside the ice provide a habitat for a genetically ...

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Machine Translates Thoughts into Speech in Real Time

December 21, 2009

( -- By implanting an electrode into the brain of a person with locked-in syndrome, scientists have demonstrated how to wirelessly transmit neural signals to a speech synthesizer. The "thought-to-speech" process ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.