100 is the new 65: The new world of super-aging
Half of 5-year-olds in America today can expect to live be 100 years old. Which means we’re heading toward a future where “super-aging” could be the norm.
How do we live with purpose and meaning for 100 years?
“There are things that we must do today to make sure that those bonus tomorrows are worth living,” William J. Kole says.
Today, On Point: Everything that has to change when 100 is the new 70.
William J. Kole, journalist. Author of “The Big 100: The New World of Super-Aging.”
Excerpt from “The Big 100: The New World of Super-Aging.” Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: In 2016, President Barack Obama hosted a meeting at the White House. Not an intelligence briefing, not a diplomatic mission. But a dance party.
BARACK OBAMA: She’s dancing. Come on! What’s the secret to still dancing at 106?
CHAKRABARTI: What’s the secret to still dancing at 106, Obama asked. And he asked it of his dance partner, Virginia McLaurin, aged 106, and roughly half as tall as either of the Obamas.
OBAMA: You want to say hi, Michelle?
CHAKRABARTI: McLaurin was born in the Jim Crow South in 1909. She told Obama that meeting the President and First Lady was a dream come true, and she was even more thrilled that her visit had coincided with Black History Month.
McLAURIN: I never thought I’d live to get in the White House.
MICHELLE OBAMA: You are here. You were here.
McLAURIN: I can tell you.
OBAMA You are here.
McLAURIN: I am so happy.
CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point, I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. Virginia McLaurin lived for another seven years. She died just last year at the age of 113. Imagine all that she lived through and witnessed.
The change she saw. McLaurin was born before talking movies. She lived 113 and died in a world utterly unrecognizable from the one into which she was born. What an exceptional life. But maybe not so exceptional for much longer. That’s because the United Nations estimates that today, there are just about 600,000 people alive who are more than 100 years old around the world.
But by 2050, the UN projects that number will rise five-fold, which means that vastly more people will live to be over 90 years old and even get to 100. So what happens when millions of people hit the century mark? That is the subject of our guest today. He’s William J. Kole, and he’s out with a new book.
It’s titled “The Big 100: The New World of Super-Aging.” William Kole, welcome to On Point.
WILLIAM KOLE: Great to be with you, Meghna.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so you’re not 100 years old.
KOLE: Not yet. I’m working on it.
CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) But I understand it was a sort of there was a moment in your life where you crossed into a somewhat new world that inspired you to write this book, and that was the arrival of an AARP card.
KOLE: That’s right. It came a couple of years ago and shocked me. It was somewhat depressing. You’re never quite ready for that thing to come in the mail.
CHAKRABARTI: Come on, the senior discounts are amazing.
KOLE: Evidently. I haven’t really taken advantage of them yet, but it’s a startling reminder for me that I’m growing older and in a broader sense, realizing we’re all aging as an American society by practically every metric.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And in fact, I remember in my family too, when my parents received their AARP card, they were like, “What?” But the fact is that what we consider to be senior elder now is quite different than it was before. And you write, you tell that story throughout the book here, but you also have a family member who lived to be what, 100 or something?
KOLE: Almost 104.
CHAKRABARTI: Oh my gosh. This is your grandmother.
CHAKRABARTI: Tell us about her.
KOLE: So Marie Mercurio Sansone was born to Sicilian immigrants in Brooklyn, New York in 1899. My mother’s mother, and she was with us until 2003. So her life touched parts of three centuries, which is a mind-blowing thing to think about.
And she was a remarkable person, even beyond her age, her longevity. She played piano for the silent movies, which is something that always makes my knees go a little weak when I think about. A remarkable person. And when you have somebody like that in your family, it just kindles a fascination for these very old human beings.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. What was she like? Especially say in the, wow, 23 years after she was 80. There’s a lot of time there. There’s still a fifth of her life was ahead of her.
KOLE: She was widowed, early in her marriage and had to soldier on. Early in her life, of course, it wasn’t easy to be a young woman in the 1920s.
And she had goals and dreams to entertain. She was a toe dancer in New York for a time. Later in life, she suffered crippling arthritis that kept her from playing the piano, and she was able to heal herself of that by putting herself on a very strict diet. No artificial flavors, preservatives, no artificial colors, and this was really decades before we caught on that might be a good strategy.
CHAKRABARTI: So she abated her arthritis that way?
KOLE: Not only did she abate her arthritis, Meghna, but at a family wedding when she was in her early 90s, she kicked her legs up into the air on the dance floor to my shoulder level.
CHAKRABARTI: No way.
KOLE: Yes. Yes. Amazing individual.
CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Okay. So she sounds like a completely remarkable woman.
But I do have to ask, were there other people in her family who also made it to centenarian status?
KOLE: No, she was the first. But my mother is 92 and still living independently in the house I grew up in. Very vigorous. We put up a video of her marching through the grocery store. It got almost 100,000 views on TikTok.
My mom, the TikTok star. But #hashtaglifegoals.
CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Yeah. So it seems like you have very good genes then, right? Because isn’t the popular understanding that once you cross the late 80s or your early 90s, what we’re really talking about is a genetic predisposition for longevity.
KOLE: Yes. The way this works, and it’s been established pretty well by longevity experts, is that actually our behaviors, our diet, our exercise the amount of sun exposure we give ourselves. Those are things that actually play about a 75% role in getting us to 90, if we’re fortunate enough to live that long.
And then the script kind of flips and from 90, the genetics piece plays an increasingly dominant role. By the time you get to the place where Ms. McLaurin got, it’s almost entirely genetic. She won the genetic lottery, all five numbers and the Powerball.
CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Exactly. Okay, so let’s go back in time a little bit, because there’s no doubt that overall, in the United States, life expectancy has changed dramatically in the past century.
It’s taken a little bit of a dip in recent years, and we’ll come back and talk about that a little bit later, but say you were born at the time that your grandmother was, or that Ms. McLaurin was, which was, in the early 1900s, what would your life expectancy have been? 60? 70?
KOLE: It, honestly, yes, around that, but even less.
CHAKRABARTI: Even less.
KOLE: At some points. For example, in about a century ago, in 1920, our life expectancy was half of what it is now. World War II played a huge role in our mortality. And there was that big influenza epidemic pandemic in 1918, around there, that killed indiscriminately by the billions, and that lowered us right.
So substantially we climbed in and clawed our way back.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. But you’re saying roughly was half as much.
KOLE: Roughly half.
CHAKRABARTI: That’s, so that’s amazing. And but the looking forward into the future, there’s a fact that you present or let’s say a prediction that you present in the book, that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about.
And I need you to explain to me how this prediction was made. And that is the possibility that if you’re five years old today. You have what, like a half of five-year-olds today could expect to live, to be, what, near 100?
KOLE: To be 100.
CHAKRABARTI: To be 100.
KOLE: This comes from Stanford’s Center on Longevity, and they took a deep dive into a lot of things to come up with this projection.
Primarily because of incredible and continuing breakthroughs in the way we treat the things that kill us. Cancer, for example earlier in my own lifetime, that was a very grim diagnosis and sometimes a death sentence. But people are surviving cancer. We have new treatments.
Immunotherapy to activate the T Cells that will fight the cancer in our body. Rather than radiation and chemo.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so it’s really a medical revolution then that extends life versus some kind of major genetic change, right? Because we were talking about the genetic link earlier. I was just thinking this rapid expansion of life expectancy is happening too quickly for genes to have changed dramatically, right?
KOLE: That’s true. Mostly it’s just medical and technological breakthroughs that are advancing our ages. And the young five-year-olds today can expect to see more of that through the course of their lives.
There are also even people on the fringes of this thought who are thinking that we may be able to live 150 years or longer because we will rapidly get to the point where we can print a new pancreas with a 3D printer or, whatever, right? That’s a little far out, but not out of the realm of possibility for some in the scientific community.
CHAKRABARTI: As we go through the conversation, I want to hear from some different stories of people that you profile in the book, as we also talk about the science, and we’ll bust some myths too.
But we’ve got a minute before our first break. Can you give us the introduction to someone you talk right about early in the book? And that’s Jeanne Calment.
KOLE: Jeanne Calment.
KOLE: It’s okay.
CHAKRABARTI: Je vous désolais.
KOLE: C’est pas grave. Jeanne Calment still is the oldest person who ever lived whose age could be authenticated by records.
She lived to 122 years and 164 days. A remarkable individual. My favorite quote from her is, “I only have one wrinkle and I’m sitting on it.”
CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) But tell me a little bit more, this idea of the spirit of a person who’s lived to be 100 or more. Are they always universally upbeat?
KOLE: Yes, that characterized Jeanne Calment very much. She was, she took fencing lessons when she was 85. She didn’t stop riding her bicycle till she was 100.
CHAKRABARTI: So Bill, I want to talk a little bit more about Jeanne Calment if I could, and maybe some of the things about how she lived her life that are common to other people who are currently in that group of human beings.
Because this is often something that people ask when we do shows about demographic shifts. What is everybody doing who’s living that long? As I recall from your book, just to put like a mental image out there. Jeanne Calment was born in 1875.
CHAKRABARTI: Just a couple of years after, what, Lincoln was assassinated.
KOLE: That’s right, yes.
CHAKRABARTI: And then she died 122 years later. Okay. So if there were things about her and how she lived her life that you would point to perhaps beyond genetics, having contributed to her long life, what would they be?
KOLE: Certainly positivity. And there have been studies that show that having a positive attitude about life in general, but specifically about our aging, our own personal journey and, as we age adds years to our lives.
And it’s very interesting. We tend to think of our bodies as being completely separate from our minds. And yet they are knitted together. And the interplay is astonishing. In Jeanne Calment’s case, she was very positive, very amusing. She liked to joke. She said late in her life that she stopped wearing mascara because she was laughing so much that she would cry it off and make a mess of her face.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so positivity, that would be one important thing. Or mindset, I think, maybe even more broadly. What else?
KOLE: Resilience, being able to rally and overcome setbacks. She was able to do that.
The other side of that coin would be handling stress. She did not necessarily have an easy life, although she was a woman of privilege, you could say, but she lost her husband. Tragically he died by eating spoiled cherries on a picnic, and so she had to live without him.
She lost, she outlived her children. She lost a grandson in a car crash. Somehow, she had to rally and overcome these tragedies in her life.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So resilience, positive mindset, genetics, as we talked about. People always want to know about diet.
KOLE: Her diet is a little bit of an enigma.
I would not follow Jeanne Calment’s diet necessarily.
KOLE: I mentioned in the book about, at her 120th birthday party there was a huge spread. And they served her duck and all kinds of pastry and chocolate cake and heavy food that would do in most mere morals.
CHAKRABARTI: Sounds like a beautiful French meal. (LAUGHS)
KOLE: I think it’s glorious, but I don’t know if that’s a recipe for 100 and anything.
CHAKRABARTI: Because there’s been a lot of journalism recently around what diet can do, right? And because there’s lots of focus on the Mediterranean diet or how, let’s say, Japanese elders in Okinawa eat.
We’ll talk about what’s been labeled the Blue Zones in a little bit. But there must be something to that, right? Or if it’s not that the diet is helping people live longer, maybe it’s the flip side. Is what we’re eating now, is it potentially curtailing what our possible lifespans could be?
KOLE: Yes. We have a lot of obesity in the United States, and as a consequence of that, diabetes, heart disease, and these are all things that are cutting our lives short. So certainly, we can optimize our chances of living for not just a long life, but a healthy life. We talk a lot about the lifespan, but the conversation is incomplete without a discussion of health span.
And that is, of course, how many years we have, that where we can enjoy ourselves and not be beset by chronic illness or, God forbid, cognitive decline.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, I do want to come back to that. Because that’s so important. Because it’s not just are we prepared as individuals regarding our health span if we’re going to live longer to actually have those be enjoyable years.
But then there’s also the broader societal implications of having so many more people living much longer. So we’re going to spend quite a bit of time discussing that. But I did want to just briefly ask you, Bill, about the idea that, are we ready? Are we ready as a society overall?
Because this Stanford prediction that you gave, it’s what, we’re in 2023 now, it’s 27 years away. Are we ready for that? That seems like a massive change.
KOLE: We are not ready. We are certainly not ready. And here’s why. There’s another thing too, besides the five-year-olds projected to live into their hundreds, because of medical advances.
There’s a demographic piece that’s driving a huge increase in the numbers of people living to a triple digit age. And that is the aging of the baby boom generation. The oldest boomers are 77 right now.
So in the next 25 years, the fittest of them will age into their 100s. And because there are so many and because centenarians tend to occur in about one in 5,000, we’re just going to see a huge increase just demographically.
So that’s a thing that’s happening on top of medical breakthroughs, advancing our life expectancy down the road. We’re not ready. We are absolutely not ready. We, first of all, a terrifying prospect is outliving your money. And we could, if we don’t get behind this and prepare.
We could see elder poverty on a scale we’ve never seen before.
CHAKRABARTI: In fact, we’ve got a comment here from a listener. Michael Richards, who says, start those Roth IRAs early, as young as possible. Clearly, it’s necessary to raise the Social Security retirement age. When Social Security began, there were, according to Michael, there were 16 working people for every retiree.
Now it’s less than 3 to 1. And then Michael goes on and says, “I don’t think millennials and Zoomers should be required to pay a higher burden into social security, especially when compound.”
Okay, Michael knows a lot about retirement financing. “But especially when compound interest in investing in a Roth at an early age can make social security obsolete for most people.”
Wow, we’re getting into some interesting territory there, Michael. But he’s pointing out that perhaps if this change is going to happen so quickly, our current means of financially assisting elders is inadequate. What do you think about that?
KOLE: Absolutely. Social security, the financial reserves that underpin it, are going to run out of money in 10 years from now.
And another thing happening 10 years from now, coincidentally, perhaps, is that for the first time in U. S. history, people 65 and older will outnumber the population 17 and younger. So that will be a huge demographic shift for the United States, a move towards an older population. And a lot of those people will rely on a social security system that is running out of money.
That’s one problem. The other is that people just don’t save for retirement, or they start way late in life. Michael’s right about that. The average or median amount of money that is saved for retirement in the U. S. is 30,000. That is woefully insufficient.
CHAKRABARTI: So we’re going to come back to this in just a second because I have a lot of questions about what you think about how this will change the nature of work, or what people do with their time, if they have a choice. And how that sort of will have a follow-on impact, a domino effect on the rest of the country and the economy, but I want to just go back to one more thing that we were doing a little survey of the things that may contribute to super longevity.
You talked about mindset, resilience, diet. That’s an important one. But I should have just pointed out earlier, the examples that we’ve said so far were women. There’s always been a tendency for women to have longer lifespans than men.
KOLE: That’s right.
CHAKRABARTI: It seems like that truth is going to continue and we’re going to see a lot more centenarian or plus. Women than men?
KOLE: There’s no sign of that abating at all.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Okay. And then the other thing I was curious about is class. Because when we’re talking about jobs that don’t damage your body. Or the ability to buy the food that would help you live longer, access to the medical care that you were talking about that would stave off things like cancer, heart disease, or provide you those tailored cures for those things.
They all are reliant on you, let’s put it that way. So when you look at who the centenarians are today, is there a class effect there that will also continue on or no?
KOLE: Yes, there’s enormous inequity in who gets to live to 100. First of all, there’s a racial and ethnic gap that is really troubling. White Americans live about six years longer than Black Americans.
That’s a lot of time. And life is at its essence about time. Time to live and love and experience things. We need to close that gap urgently. And then there’s the rich get more time. People who have a four-year college degree get more time.
For various reasons, some you just mentioned, they get to work in air-conditioned buildings, not out in the heat. And they are usually able to advocate for themselves at the doctor’s office better. They have better health care in general, and they tend not to smoke. So these are all things that in terms of class and income, there’s a gap there.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, and it sounds like that gap will persist if not grow.
KOLE: Yes, absolutely. Let’s shift for a second to talking about how other nations that are ahead on the curve of superannuation are right now handling it. Because, Bill, I have to say, maybe it’s just by virtue of me being a cynical Gen Xer, what rushes to mind first with the thought that we’re going to have, possibly half of today’s five-year-olds can expect to live to be 100, I’m just thinking about all the problems that come with that.
But if we look at places, let’s take, someplace like Japan as an example, which is oftentimes pointed to as a nation that has an aging problem already. What would you say the impacts are right now as we see them?
KOLE: So Japan, of course, it’s the oldest society we have, a third of their people are 65 plus.
And they do, they’re more geared to accommodating that demographic. Even just culturally, there’s a more of a respect for elders and almost older people are revered, in some senses. And they are very innovative, so a couple of things that the Japanese are doing is trying to combat ageism by having little four-year-olds, they call them baby workers.
Go to nursing homes and assisted living facilities and play and skip and jump and run around in the presence of very old Japanese people, and then the conversations occur.
And you get this beautiful engagement between the generations and then they’re trying different things with health care. And Korea is another example. They have a wonderful national elder care insurance system that doesn’t bankrupt people when they need the care, whether it’s home care or eventually something that requires being in an institution of some kind.
They pay 1,300 a month maximum. And for this, people come to their home, help them with their meds, bathe them, do physical therapy. That’s another challenge we face, is loneliness and isolation.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I was just going to say that. Because already now, the Surgeon General frequently, Vivek Murthy talks about the loneliness epidemic, as he calls it, in the United States, and it’s particularly acute amongst elders already.
Because there’s a real lack, when everyone in your cohort starts dying. You start losing your social connections unless you’re living in a community that works hard to maintain them, which doesn’t happen in a lot of places in the United States, Bill? So it seems to me that the loneliness epidemic could grow as more people live longer.
KOLE: At least in the short or medium term. I think, as we age collectively, eventually, we may get to a point where our partners, our friends, other family members are aging into their hundreds with us. And that’s a beautiful thought. But the first vanguard of people who will really be aging in significant numbers like that will be doing so alone.
And isolation, the Surgeon General declares it a public health crisis. The National Institute on Aging says it’s like smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And it could take up to 15 years off of our lives, which is a massive amount of time.
CHAKRABARTI: Because instances of, or the rates of depression amongst elderly in the United States is pretty high, that’s loneliness and social isolation being a major contributing factor.
There’s something else that I heard in your Japan and Korea examples, which I think is very different from what we have here in the United States, based on what you said. And that is just our societal attitudes about the elderly, right? Our elders, I’ll put it that way. Because if in Korea, they have a system in place to financially support people if they need it for elder care, other than Medicaid, right?
We don’t really have that here. And it doesn’t seem to be a policy priority, even though the demographic urgency is clearly there. I’m wondering if you think that as more and more people live to be longer and longer, that maybe that’ll change here. Because I don’t, if it doesn’t, then I don’t see policy changes coming when they need to, in order to support a rapidly aging population.
KOLE: Yeah, it’s a concern. It’s top of mind. I think that will depend, you know, in large measure, on who’s in charge, you know, if Republicans maintain control of Congress. It may be difficult to see any kind of change like that for people who are determined to keep government small and spending at a minimum. They’re not imagining these needs and so that’s a question.
CHAKRABARTI: But we have potential answers to it. Looking at other examples. Sorry, Japan and Korea, as you just said. And what else? We’ve got 45 seconds until our next break here.
What else are they doing in and again, Japan keeps coming to mind because the way economists look at Japan, they see this like giant demographic catastrophe coming, because there aren’t enough young people to do the jobs anymore in Japan. Do you have that same concern about this sort of superannuated bubble that’s going to emerge in the United States?
KOLE: I think we can elaborate on that after the break. But we shouldn’t think of the aging population necessarily as a break on our economy, but rather an engine.
If we’re going to live to 100, we’re going to be buying things and more than before.
CHAKRABARTI: Buying things. And also, I think it’s going to change really fundamental things like how we design cities, and work and all that. So we’ll discuss that when we come back.
CHAKRABARTI: We’re talking about the fact that many more people in the near future are going to be living a lot longer. The how’s and the why’s of that, and of course, the implications of having potentially millions more people live to be 100 years old.
Now, Bill, a few minutes ago, I just quickly brushed over what’s being popularly called Blue Zones, and those are parts of the world in which people, or let’s say the incidents of centenarians are higher than in other places in the world. And those places include, we mentioned Japan, in and around the Mediterranean, Sardinia, things like that.
And journalist Dan Buettner, he’s been writing about Blue Zones for quite a while. And we just have this clip of an interview he gave to ABC News. And he talks about the places that he studied and what they have in common. Strong community ties. Lots of walking, and:
DAN BUETTNER: Overwhelmingly, they’re eating a whole food, plant-based diet.
The five foods in every Blue Zone are whole grains, greens, tubers like sweet potato, nuts, and beans. And if you’re eating a cup of beans a day, you’re probably not only getting all your protein and most of your fiber, but also, it’s associated with living an extra four years.
CHAKRABARTI: So what do you think about the Blue Zones hypothesis?
KOLE: The Blue Zones are fascinating. There is a bit of a myth to them, however that they are, in fact, centenarian factories. They don’t actually, the numbers don’t bear out that they produce significantly more people living into their 100s. What they do is, they have a larger population of people living into their nineties and very healthy.
And they’re very vigorous and we can learn a lot from how they roll through life. That diet, of course is something that we can take a cue from. But everyone was watching that Netflix series recently on, Living to 100 and The Blue Zones. You would be hard pressed to hear a mention of genetics in that whole series.
We cannot, we don’t like to think that long life is out of our control, and we like to control the things that we can, and that makes sense. But we can’t ignore that. The genetics piece is there.
CHAKRABARTI: The way I look at it, and you can tell me this is hogwash, but the way I look at it is that genes help determine the range of the maximal number of years you could potentially live.
And I don’t say the exact year, but the range, right? And then environment and behavior will help influence how far into that range you can actually go. But there is a limit, a genetically imposed limit. Does that, is that a kind of, is that an accurate way of looking at it?
KOLE: There was a study in Italy that found that after 105 they felt like the ceiling kind of fell out. And they were reluctant to say that there is a limit, we will see.
CHAKRABARTI: But a limit, like there’s thinking of my own family history, I don’t think that there’s any way I’m going to live to be 100 because there’s just. (LAUGHS)
You’re being like, “Huh, maybe not, Meghna.” But I’m just being, I’m being honest, right? Because we’re talking about how genetics is a really important factor here. That’s not discussed in things like Netflix documentaries. And I keep coming back to this because are we leading people astray by talking so much about how lifespan is going to be elongated?
Not for everyone, but for a lot of folks in the next half century. Without talking about, okay will those years be worth living?
KOLE: Yes. And of course, that’s the key question. What will those years look like? Will we be mobile? Will we have friends and family still with us? Or will we have outlived them?
And, the big question, will we be cognitively, with it? That’s a real fear, but probably the biggest fear most of us have when we contemplate old age.
CHAKRABARTI: We’re also, yes, because we’re seeing rising rates of dementia, Alzheimer’s.
CHAKRABARTI: All of that. It’s interesting that you said a lot of medical research is now focused on things like heart disease and cancer, which are, can be considered diseases of old age.
Do you think there’s enough, excuse me, do you think there’s enough focus as well on these, the diseases of the mind and brain?
KOLE: Alzheimer’s is getting a lot of money and attention, and as a consequence of that, big pharma is developing a new class of drugs to slow its effects.
We still have no cure. One thing that I talk about in the book is that cognitive decline is not inevitable as we age, as a matter of fact, and that there are quite a large number of centenarians who never develop any cognitive impairment. And there was a fascinating study done two years ago in the Netherlands, of 300 centenarians ranging in age from 100 to 108.
And as part of the study, they agreed to have their brains examined upon death, and a lot of them had no signs of any kind of, the plaques or tangles that are telltale signs of Alzheimer’s disease. And then there was a subset who did have the plaques and tangles. But had never in their 105-year-old lives or whatever exhibited any decline.
KOLE: And if we can unlock the secrets to why, why they had their brains showed signs of Alzheimer’s, but they never developed symptoms and we could develop a pill for that, that would be huge.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So back to that question of will those extra years or longer years be worth living?
Obviously, there’s the health question, like you said. Or will we just be living an additional decade or two in a state of constant medical distress? There’s the financial question. Will people have enough money to be able to live? But I also want to get to something else.
Because I know you talk about it in the book. Climate change. And when so many people are living so much longer, how does that relate to even current day concerns about climate change?
KOLE: I’ll tell you, this is the big question mark hanging over all of this, because if we don’t address our climate crisis immediately, we’re not going to have any longevity, never mind extreme longevity.
And I’m thinking about those five-year-olds who are projected to live to 100. What’s the world going to look like for them? In fact, what’s the world going to look like for the boomers who will become 100 in two and a half decades? When we will, by all projections, begin to really feel the full force and fury of climate change?
And who wants to live to 100 on a planet ravaged by extreme weather? And as a consequence of that, economic insecurity and political instability. This is a an urgent and obviously transcendent problem we need to address.
CHAKRABARTI: Related to that, I know I’m going to get a lot of email from folks who say, “There are already too many people on the planet anyway, so why would we want to have more people living much longer?
Because the carrying capacity of the earth is already under stress.” What do you think about that?
KOLE: It’s a concern. And as I mention in the book, some will live to 100, whether we like it or not, these things are happening. And unless we do something dramatic to stop our lives. We’re going to potentially live that long.
That’s a concern because of resources that people will need. And younger generations could be disadvantaged in terms of how much money and government spending there is for their needs.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So let me ask you about that. Because we’ve been focusing on what life will be like for people who will be living to 100. But what will life also be like for the younger people of the future? Because I’m thinking about Senator Dianne Feinstein recently passed away in her 90s, working until the end. And there’s a lot of industries and sectors where people either are continuing to work because they have to, for the money.
Or continuing to work because when you’re 65 these days, or 70, your fitness to work has not actually diminished all that much. And so there’s some tensions there in terms of how the shape of the labor force might also be changed. Don’t you think?
KOLE: Absolutely. And, in this country, which I describe as the United States of gray America. We are a full-blown gerontocracy or will be soon, if not already, we saw that with Mitch McConnell, we have the oldest Congress we’ve ever had. We have the oldest occupant of the Oval Office we’ve ever had.
And these are issues that concern people. The median age of Americans is just under 40. Only 5% of Congress is under 40. We call ourselves a representative democracy, and a lot of our younger citizens don’t feel represented.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And then also, I briefly mentioned, because this is particularly interesting to me. Just our physical infrastructure isn’t necessarily built for, right now it’s definitely not built for people who are, A, differently abled or elderly, right?
It sounds, it feels like that will have to change if we’re going to have so many more people. Forget 10, but even in octogenarians or nonagenarians.
KOLE: Absolutely, and that’s the thing, we will see an increase in the numbers of people living to 100, but even those who don’t make it quite to that milestone will live deeper into their 80s and 90s and they will need accommodation.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so we’ve only got a few minutes left Bill, and I hope you don’t mind if I ask you a personal question.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So first and foremost, I really hope you don’t mind if I say this, but you don’t look your age at all. You look vastly young. You’re, how old are you now?
KOLE: I’ll be 63 next month. (LAUGHS)
I want to look like you when I reach 63. (LAUGHS)
KOLE: Oh, thank you Meghna.
CHAKRABARTI: It’s your good genes shining through here. Do you want to be like your grandmother and get even past 100?
KOLE: Absolutely. First of all, Since I wrote this book, I have to, I feel like I’m on the hook to live to 100, and out of pure journalistic curiosity, yes, I would like to see, with the same caveats we all have, that I can put two sentences together, and move around. I have a friend, a fellow journalist who says that if I don’t live to 100, that will be the first line in my obituary, William J. Kole, a veteran journalist and an author who wrote a definitive book about living to 100, only to fall spectacularly short of his own hype died Thursday. He was 62.
CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Let us pray that does not happen. I’m fairly confident it will not. But in your years of studying increases in longevity. Have you made changes to your life?
KOLE: Yes. I took a little bit of an early retirement from AP, where I was running our news ops for New England.
Because I realized early on that toxic stress is the enemy of longevity. And there is no shortage of toxic stress in the 24-hour news cycle. So I exited that to work in a different rhythm like I do now with book projects, and I gave up alcohol because my younger brother actually died at 59 of alcoholism and that seemed like a good thing to steer away from.
CHAKRABARTI: Oh, I’m sorry about your brother.
KOLE: Ah, it’s —
CHAKRABARTI: We’ve got a comment here from Stephen Haines. Who takes us back to the spiritual aspect of what may connect people who live for a long time. He says, “Aging well and with purpose would require a return to social institutions that nurture the soul and cultivate the spirit.”
So Stephen says, “Go to church.” I’ll expand that a little more broadly. Or be part of organizations that give you a sense of meaning and purpose. What do you think about that?
KOLE: He’s spot on. Research has shown that people who embrace a religious faith live longer than people who don’t. And mostly they think it has to do with attending services, and that speaks to the social aspects of belief, not necessarily the creeds themselves.
But it is a phenomenon right across the spectrum of faith, from Christianity to Islam to Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism. It doesn’t matter what you believe, but if you do believe, you tend to live longer.
CHAKRABARTI: Interesting. I wonder, like you said, attending services of any kind. So perhaps it’s being part of a community of mutual support, right?
Huh. Okay. In the last minute that we have, I also just want to do one final reality check. And I just barely mentioned at the near the top of the show. And that is in the United States since 2020, and possibly even before that, but we’ve actually seen a decline in life expectancy. And so it just, it’s a stark reminder that trajectories can be thrown off of their original estimations quite quickly by massive events, or nations not taking care of their people.
How does that understanding fit into sort of your overall view of what the future might hold? Because I come away from that thinking there’s no guarantee that we’re going to make the improvements that are necessary for those five-year-olds of today to reach the century mark.
KOLE: That’s true. Of course, COVID took a big hit on our life expectancy. And it wasn’t just COVID, we have lost years to what are commonly called deaths of despair, the opioids crisis, suicide, gun violence. These are things that have hit our life expectancy in the United States.
That said, the United Nations population office is projecting that we will probably make up the ground we lost during the pandemic as early as the end of this year. We do rebound, just as we rebounded from the influenza epidemic in the beginning of the last century, we will regain ground.
CHAKRABARTI: I take away from that the importance of taking care of each other though, on a family level, and a community level and definitely a national level as well. Because I don’t think you can really separate those from the things that an individual can do to have those extra worthy, worthwhile years, right?
KOLE: We are social beings.
CHAKRABARTI: We are social beings.
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