WASHINGTON, May 21 (UPI) -- Only a half-century ago, people who lived to see 65 were content to step down from their jobs and spend their few remaining years relaxing at home. Today, folks who reach 65 are starting new careers, running marathons, trotting the globe, and financially planning to live perhaps another two to three decades.
Old age and what it means to be old have undergone a sweeping makeover in the United States, thanks to advances in medical treatments and technology that can convert what once were deadly conditions into chronic illnesses.
As the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, as of 2000, life expectancy for the U.S. population hit an all-time high of an average 76.9 years. A baby born in 2002 is expected to live well past age 80, particularly females, who have had consistently higher life expectancies than males.
Some experts even predict that by the end of the 21st century, America will see more people living past 100 -- perhaps well past 100 -- although others contend that we are quickly approaching our limit.
"Life expectancy is drastically going up," Dr. Howard Koch, medical director of the Geriatric Health Institute at the Florida Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., told United Press International.
Being old is no longer about riding out one's sunset years, but taking advantage of a second sunrise. Koch said he constantly sees patients in their 80s and 90s who are out golfing or traveling, sometimes even starting new careers by going into business for themselves. New and improved prescription drugs, which offer a far wider range in treating the subtleties of chronic conditions than was possible only a few decades ago, plus advances in medical technologies "really keep people alive and not just alive, but flourishing," he said.
Life expectancy has increased by two or three years during the past decade alone. This trend is anticipated to continue when new genetic therapies, considered the future of medicine, are expected to treat and cure even more illnesses in the coming decades.
Koch believes life expectancy will peak and then slow down slightly to just a one- or two-year-per-decade increase over the remainder of the 21st century.
If medicines of the future, already being tested now, can keep humans alive for another 20, 30, or possibly even 40 years after the traditional retirement age of 65, will those be quality years or just sitting around being kept alive by drugs or machinery? The answer could depend on how an individual lived during his or her younger years.
"I believe there is no question what people wish for is that people want a long, rich, active life and then boom, they're not alive any longer," Elinor Ginzler, a spokeswoman from the American Association of Retired Persons, told UPI. "What people are wishing for is probably not particularly likely for them."
Healthy diet, regular exercise, and a strong engagement to a social network have all been found in numerous studies to enhance overall quality of life. The sooner these behavior habits are established, the better.
However, even a person who has routinely practiced such a healthy life can struggle in old age, although that struggle appears to have been postponed by 10 or 20 years by medical advances. One of the nation's fastest growing demographic groups is people age 85 and older.
"The chances are if you're 85 or older, you're going to need help," said Stella Henry, co-founder and director of Vista del Sol, an assisted living center for the elderly in Culver City, Calif. "It's unrealistic that you're going to be independent enough to live alone. I think where we may be missing the boat is planning on how we're going to get old. How long do you want technology to keep you alive?"
While some 80-somethings rely on technologies such as pacemakers and dialysis machines, more Americans are seeing an increasing number of people in their old age very publicly living impressively active lives, such as CBS broadcast journalist Mike Wallace, who just celebrated his 84th birthday on May 9, but recently announced that he plans to cut back on his workload. Experts say this lifestyle is the new face of old age.
Another example is Dr. Michael DeBakey, who at 94 remains a senior attending surgeon at The Methodist Hospital and chancellor emeritus of Baylor College of Medicine, both in Houston.
Still another was Elizabeth, the Queen Mother of England, who died last March at age 101. The "Queen Mum" was known to have been very active throughout her life. Experts recommend staying active as making all the difference as longevity increases, and it will become more common to see men and women in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s and 90s remaining in the work force, engaging in physical and leisure activities, and thinking less and less about slowing down.
As the baby boomers -- the 83 million people born between 1946 and 1964 -- approach retirement age and more of them live longer, how will a graying nation cope with so many elderly citizens? A burgeoning elderly demographic means a rise in age-related illnesses such as Alzheimer's, cancer, heart disease, and arthritis, to name a few.
Alzheimer's disease alone is expected to double, to 8 million patients, over the next two or three decades. Although genetic therapies offer some promise to treat this incurable disease, scientists have yet to discover its cause.
Dr. Stanley Konerman, associate dean for ethics and professor of medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles, questions whether we should always use medical know-how just because we have it available.
With longevity comes some tough choices, Konerman said. Will the future of medicine dictate that everyone, no matter what age or health condition, is entitled to the latest in medical treatments to extend his or her life? Or must the benefits and risks of such treatments be weighed against the individual's needs?
"Age alone as a barrier seems to me to be inappropriate," Konerman said. "It's devaluing people. Medical capacity is much better way in judging whether someone should receive medical tech intervention."
Meaning a 90-year-old patient in relatively good health would likely be a good candidate for a heart transplant surgery, for example, but a 90-year-old patient in very poor health might not be.
It is a huge accomplishment in human history that more people will live to blow out 80 or more candles on their birthday cakes, that they will live to enjoy their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and even multiple careers.
But these gifts come at a price, both to the individual, who will need to prepare for the burden of financing medical advances to stay alive, and to society as a whole, which must prepare for the growing demands of an aging population with intensifying medical and health care needs.
"That's a big obstacle, the money end of this," Ginzler said. "These technologies, whether they're pharmaceutical or else aren't free." Money, she said, could directly dictate how well an individual can take advantage of this stretching life expectancy rate.
"I don't think we can underscore that enough."