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Is 50 the new 30? What constitutes 'old' is always evolving

| Friday, Nov. 26, 2010

There might be some truth to the saying "50 is the new 30."

The first of the baby boomers -- those born between 1946 and 1964 -- will turn 65 next year. They're hanging onto their youth with Botox, Viagra and health club memberships, while medical advances have enabled them to improve their odds against heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and osteoporosis. By 2030, there will be 72 million Americans 65 and older, representing 20 percent of the population, up from 13 percent in 2008.

Aging by itself isn't so bad, says Neil Resnick, chief of geriatrics at the University of Pittsburgh and director of its Institute on Aging. But it can kill when combined with smoking, drinking, disease, pollutants, obesity or bad genes.

"There's a baseline thing called aging that happens to everybody," Resnick says. "But if the impact has been magnified by the imposition of these additional things, that makes it look worse and more aggressive and more rapid than it normally would have."

During the mid-20th century, for example, smoking and drinking were still a part of everyday life. Lard and other fats were part of many diets. The air and water were more polluted. Heart attacks and high blood pressure had a much higher fatality rate. Often, however, these illnesses were assumed to be part of aging, Resnick says.

"Now that we're peeling back all those other contributors, what we're finding is aging itself, and that is nowhere near as dramatic or dire as we would have thought," Resnick says. "That's why people who get to 50 look and function better than 50-year-olds 50 years ago."

Metlife Mature Market Institute's 2005 survey, "How Old Is Old?," asked 20-, 30-, 40-, 50- and 60-somethings what age someone had to be before they were considered to be "old." Not surprisingly, that age increased as respondents themselves aged.

A more recent survey, "Baby Boomer Bookends," asked the same question of the youngest and oldest baby boomers.

"The youngest baby boomer was 44 at the time, and they said 71 years old is considered old," says Sandra Timmermann, a gerontologist and director of the institute. "The oldest boomer at the time was 62. They said that 78 was old. You've got that interesting dynamic of people pushing back what old actually is."

There's also been a societal shift in the traditional segments of life, with more people starting second families or working past the traditional retirement age. Between 1977 and 2007, the number of workers 65 and older increased 101 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"It used to be a sequence of life stages," Timmermann says. "First, you would go to school. Then you would get married and you'd work, and then you would retire. Now, when you think about it, some of these life stages are mixed up, because you see people going back to school at 40 and retooling themselves. Community colleges are full of adult students."

Karen Suszynski, a retired English and communications teacher from the Jefferson Hills School District, says her 60 is a lot different from her mother's 60.

"I don't feel like old age is staring me in the face at all. I feel very invigorated by what I'm doing now and glad to have the opportunity to be able to do it," Suszynski says. She's embarked upon a second career as the founder of a nonprofit organization called TJ Arts.

Aging itself is a matter of almost benign attrition. We're born with a reserve capacity in our organs and cells, Resnick says. This capacity builds until it peaks around age 30. From there, we experience a gradual diminishment in aerobic capacity and muscle strength.

Last month, Roger Brockenbrough, 76, of Mt. Lebanon, completed his seventh Ironman Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii. The event features a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike race and 26.2-mile marathon. He says he cut nearly 30 minutes off last year's time. In September, he competed in the Duathlon World Championship in Edinburgh, Scotland, and the Triathlon World Championship in Budapest.

What age does he consider to be old?

"It keeps moving up," Brockenbrough says. "The first thing that comes into my mind is 80, but that's not very far ahead. Fortunately, I've had a very boring medical history."

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