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: Being raised in greener neighborhoods may have beneficial effects on brain development

Related Stories

Being raised in greener neighborhoods may have beneficial effects on brain development

February 23, 2018
Primary schoolchildren who have been raised in homes surrounded by more greenspace tend to present with larger volumes of white and grey matter in certain areas of the brain. Those anatomic differences are in turn associated ...

Children with facial difference have a lot to teach us about body image

February 23, 2018
The recently released film Wonder is based on the true story of Auggie, a boy born with a severe facial deformity. The film picks up at the point where Auggie, having been home-schooled by his mother, attends a regular school ...

No, you're probably not 'addicted' to your smartphone — but you might use it too much

February 23, 2018
The term "addiction" is often bandied about when we think someone spends too much time on something we deem detrimental to their health and well-being. From checking our phones repetitively, to playing with specific apps ...

How people cope with difficult life events fuels development of wisdom, study finds

February 21, 2018
How a person responds to a difficult life event such as a death or divorce helps shape the development of their wisdom over time, a new study from Oregon State University suggests.

Children who grew up in disadvantaged households will age in poorer health, even if their socio-economic status improves

February 20, 2018
Although socio-economic status is known to influence health, strong evidence of the association between economic vulnerability in childhood and the health of older adults was still missing. Researchers at the University of ...

Study points to risk of future sleep breathing problems in college football players

February 21, 2018
Because of the findings and subsequent news coverage regarding concussions and brain damage in football, we have all become aware that playing the game may involve more than living with painful injuries - it may involve incurring ...

Recommended for you

Sweet, bitter, fat: New study reveals impact of genetics on how kids snack

February 22, 2018
Whether your child asks for crackers, cookies or veggies to snack on could be linked to genetics, according to new findings from the Guelph Family Health Study at the University of Guelph.

The good and bad health news about your exercise posts on social media

February 22, 2018
We all have that Facebook friend—or 10—who regularly posts photos of his or her fitness pursuits: on the elliptical at the gym, hiking through the wilderness, crossing a 10K finish line.

Smartphones are bad for some teens, not all

February 21, 2018
Is the next generation better or worse off because of smartphones? The answer is complex and research shows it largely depends on their lives offline.

Tackling health problems in the young is crucial for their children's future

February 21, 2018
A child's growth and development is affected by the health and lifestyles of their parents before pregnancy - even going back to adolescence - according to a new study by researchers at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, ...

Lead and other toxic metals found in e-cigarette 'vapors': study

February 21, 2018
Significant amounts of toxic metals, including lead, leak from some e-cigarette heating coils and are present in the aerosols inhaled by users, according to a study from scientists at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public ...

Why teens need up to 10 hours' sleep

February 21, 2018
Technology, other distractions and staying up late make is difficult, but researchers say teenagers need to make time for 8-10 hours of sleep a night to optimise their performance and maintain good health and wellbeing.

0 comments

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.