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The Next 50 Years: Building Ties and Tracking Early Experiences for a Longer Lifespan

The Next 50 Years: Building Ties and Tracking Early Experiences for a Longer Lifespan

​This semester, the College of Natural Sciences is checking in with faculty experts about developments, related to their fields of study, that may well affect how we live, work and interact with one another and the world around us over the next 50 years. For this installment, we hear from Professor Karen Fingerman, professor of human development and family sciences and co-director of the Texas Aging & Longevity Center, which this week celebrates one year in operation at UT Austin.

​Professor Fingerman's projection for the next 50 years (edited for space):

Over the past 30 years, researchers have discovered the people who were more actively engaged with friends and family live longer, are in better health, and are less likely to experience cognitive declines. Yet, loneliness and social isolation are increasing problems in late life, and human longevity has increased dramatically. 

Over the past century, this change in longevity has reshaped the population of Texas and the United States in fundamental ways. Today, 15% of Texans — nearly 4 million people — are aged 65 or older. By 2040, older adults will represent 22% of the population.

A major concern among older adults is combatting social isolation. Great Britain recently appointed a Minister of Loneliness to deal with this issue in the U.K., and loneliness is equally pervasive in the United States. Adults today often enter old age without a spouse, with few children, and with diminished involvement in community groups or activities outside the home. As they lose physical functioning and are less able to get out of the house, they may end up isolated and alone. 

Today's researchers are working with a variety of technologies to help foster social connections — and this trend is likely to grow. Many older adults today are uncomfortable using these technologies, but new generations of older adults will have greater familiarity with technology. Researchers working in this area may be able to generate apps, robots or other technologies that help facilitate a sense of belonging with other people.

Clearly, Texas is at the cutting edge of major societal changes relevant to aging that will occur throughout the U.S. Collectively, an aging population poses significant questions for families, government, industry and the community. In addition to questions about addressing social isolation, there are questions such as: What happens when we begin to outlive the money we have saved? How can we combat the growing challenge of dementia? And how can we better address disparities in health and resources that determine who gets to live into old age and grow old well, versus who ages without adequate support?

One area ripe for investigation involves the influence of early life experiences on later life well-being. For example, education provides resources that maximize the likelihood of aging successfully; these include a cognitively stimulating job, a larger social network, increased likelihood of getting and remaining married and access to health care. Discoveries regarding how these factors interact with the aging process are likely to help in the development of prevention efforts earlier in life to facilitate optimal old age. 

The Texas Aging & Longevity Center launched in January 2019 to address issues such as the ones I have described. The center brings together over 120 faculty, graduate students, and other researchers at UT Austin from 11 different colleges and schools. It provides opportunities for these researchers to forge collaborations, engage in discussions, share expertise, learn about cutting-edge methodologies, keep abreast of current research and form a scholarly community around shared research interests. The center involves several special interest groups that address specifically social relationships, dementias and brain aging, health disparities, and technology and health. 

Researchers affiliated with the center are poised to make tremendous inroads in the challenges of an aging society. Some are working on strategies to help more people remain socially active late in life, which is vital to a healthy old age. Others examine issues such as the disparities in early life that can factor into healthy aging. A number even extend these efforts into looking at genetic factors that may increase or decrease the influence of life events on health and well-being in old age. The comprehensive result is research that is responding to the range of concerns about later life to allow more people to experience healthier long lives.

Check out more essays and podcasts in our series, The Next 50 Years

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Tuesday, 20 October 2020

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