Aging boomer population brings new issues, roundtable says

Oct. 25, 2010, 3:04 a.m.
Aging boomer population brings new issues, roundtable says
Former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a Stanford graduate, spoke on Saturday at a panel on aging. (VIVIAN WONG/The Stanford Daily)

Television journalist Tom Brokaw moderated the fifth Roundtable at Stanford on Saturday, guiding a panel of six leaders in a talk titled, “Generation Ageless: Longevity and the Boomers.”

Panelists from the Stanford faculty included University President John Hennessy; psychology professor and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity Laura Carstensen and biology professor Robert Sapolsky. Also joining the panel were Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor ’50 L.L.B. ’52 and AARP chief executive Barry Rand.

Brokaw steered the baby boomer discussion through topics ranging from economics to education to longevity. The panel agreed that the baby boomer issues will impact all generations, particularly because increasing life expectancy is transforming the demographic landscape.

“We’ve reached a historical point where three, four, five and conceivably six generations may be alive at the same time,” Carstensen said. “Imagine being born into a family where you have a complement of not only your parents, but also your grandparents, great-grandparents and maybe even great-great-grandparents, all invested in the well-being of the youngest among them.”

Sapolsky agreed with Carstensen on the benefits of the shared experiences and “cumulative wisdom” of multiple generations. Drawing from her own family experiences, Sandberg said, “Keeping the generations close, remembering where you come from is so important.”

But panelists recognized that “cumulative wisdom” will come hand-in-hand with cross-generational burdens.

“We need to think about this problem as a multigenerational problem,” Hennessy said. “We need to engage young people thinking about it because it’s going to be their parents. It’s eventually going to be a financial burden on them.”

O’Connor, whose husband suffered from Alzheimer’s disease before dying, stressed the burden that baby boomers will soon put on the health care system.

“After 80, one in two people have Alzheimer’s, so I have a pretty good chance myself of contracting it,” O’Connor said. “That is a lot of people.”

O’Connor exhorted audience members to work toward finding means of palliating diseases associated with age.

“In this nation, when we faced problems with polio, tuberculosis, we got together as a nation and attacked it on a broad scale and got the solution,” O’Connor said. “We have not done that for Alzheimer’s, and we must. We really must.”

In addition to Alzheimer’s, the panelists recognized that the health care system will face other issues as well.

“Obesity is the new smoking,” Hennessy said. “It will present us with a budget just as big 30 years from now if we don’t solve it.”

Whereas Hennessy and O’Connor cautioned the audience on specific health issues, Sapolsky characterized modern health dilemmas as bewilderingly novel.

“What this centers around is the totally bizarre diseases we deal with these days,” Sapolsky said. “None of us worry about cholera. There’s hardly any vaccine on the horizon that will have a serious impact on our health. “

In the end, the panelists produced a laundry list of problems related to the longevity of the baby boomers, but they agreed that, to be forward-looking, solutions are necessary. Carstensen suggested a wholesale change of American views of longevity.

“We’ve added 30 years [to life expectancies], and we’ve tacked them all onto the end. The only stage in life that has gotten longer is old age,” Carstensen said. “Let’s put some of those years earlier in life. Let’s stretch out adolescence a little further, and let’s stretch out young adulthood a little further. We don’t have to do everything all at once.”

Hennessy recapitulated the need to deal with health issues by suggesting increased funding for chronic diseases.

“We need to focus on search on the chronic long-term diseases that we didn’t get to worry about because we died of something else much earlier,” Hennessy said.

O’Connor reminded the audience that a discussion is meaningless without action, urging: “Let’s get down to practicality.”

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