By Fan Liu
According to a recent study by the Stanford Center on Longevity, three out of four Americans say that they want to live to 100 if they can do so in good health.
The center celebrates its 10th anniversary with a newly launched website for its flagship Sightlines project to redefine how people can live healthier and more fruitful lives. The project began a year ago with a study on how Americans are preparing for longer lifespans.
“People are living longer than ever before,” Tamara Sims Ph.D. ’13, a researcher at the center, said in an interview with Stanford News. “It’s an exciting time, but we are currently not prepared. The point of the Center for Longevity is to prepare Americans to live happier lives as they reach maturity.”
In the study, data from eight nationally representative surveys across six age groups showed that the biggest negative change in American lifestyle over time is the decrease in people’s financial security. Millennials, ages 25 to 34, are facing an average debt five times higher than the debt for the same age group 15 years ago, according to Stanford News.
Social interaction is also on the decline for the baby boomers compared to 55- to 64-year-olds in 1995. Compared to 20 years ago, people are less likely to be married or to participate in religious and community activities.
At the same time, the study also revealed some positive lifestyle changes. Americans today are more conscientious about their health — regular exercise is the norm for the first time in decades and smoking has been on a steady decline across every age group.
The Sightlines team has designed an interactive website that provides visualizations of the data from the 2016 study. The website offers an in-depth look at changes within the American population. Visitors can sort data by gender, ethnicity, education, income, marital status and geographical region.
“Our hope for developing the website is not just to present our thinking about this topic, but to engage and iterate with people beyond our center as part of an ongoing, evolving discussion focused on preparing Americans for long-lived lives,” Sims told Stanford News.
Throughout its work, the Center on Longevity emphasizes that its research focus is on longevity and not on old age because “building a world where the majority of people thrive in old age requires attention to the entire lifespan,” its website reads.
For example, its 2016 study also found that although more educated people tend to be healthier across the board, they are also more likely to sit for long stretches of time, which recently emerged as an independent risk factor for negative health impacts.
“The biggest lesson from this next phase of the Sightlines project is that we can’t make sweeping generalizations about different generations of Americans or about different domains of well-being, for that matter,” Sims said. “There are always caveats that need to be considered and further explored.”
Founded by psychology professor Laura Carstensen, the Stanford Center on Longevity is split into three major divisions: the mind division, the financial division and the mobility division.
The mind division conducts research on the benefits of elderly engagement in volunteering. As more people reach old age, a new group of the population becomes suitable for social work. The mobility division examines people’s 24-hour circadian cycle in relation to how sleep affects physical ability. The financial division is studying demographics that are likely to be targets of senior fraud. All three divisions recognize the vast potential of the later phase of life and seek to maximize the experience of aging for seniors.
“Dr. Carstensen changed the view of the psychology of aging,” Sims said. “Instead of seeing it as a stereotypically bleak time, she saw a long and bright future.”
Contact Fan Liu at fliu6 ‘at’ stanford.edu.