When that old man in a long white beard turns over the New Year to a robust round baby in diapers, they share framed edges of life, one at the end and one just beginning. With the help of science, an old man today passing the baton has a greater life expectancy than his predecessor did in 1840 when data began to show steady increases. The baby this year is lively and bouncing, and need not worry as much about infant mortality.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a baby born in America was expected to reach the ripe old age of 47. My grandson, delivered on Christmas Eve, can anticipate living to the age of 79. If progress continues, his life expectancy will rise to 88. At the end of the century, the norm may be a cool 100.
As the culture ages, so does the collective Congress, and there's a tendency to protect the government protections for old age. Some of those protections are showing their age. Economic advantages through government assistance expand for aging seniors, and economic advantages for their juniors look less likely. That's now clear. What to do about it is not.
Social Security is based on age assumptions rooted in the last century, but Social Security remains "the third rail of politics." A president touches it at his peril. The last president who raised the qualifying age for benefits was Ronald Reagan, our oldest president. President Obama, with a new conservative Congress, will not likely do much more than talk about the problems of Social Security -- although its pay formula remains unsustainable.
But for all of the photo spreads of seniors skiing, rowing and running, it's too soon to depict Father Time on a skateboard, with scythe in hand. Even if the parents of a new baby are vegans on gluten-free, low-carb diets with exercise monitors on wrists, ankles and arms to measure heart rates, pulse and blood pressure, we aren't close to discovering the fountain of youth, or even a spray of magic water to slow down the aging process.
Ponce de Leon never found the Fountain of Youth he sought in Florida, but many now live out the final stages of their lives in warm climates, where the aging elite meet (in late afternoon) for their early-bird dinners. They enjoy life on the retirement track longer than their counterparts of last century did, but physical and mental nirvana remains elusive.
The New Year's baby has a greater chance for a longer life because we know more about nutrition, sanitation and medical inoculations. But buzzwords for greatly extending longevity can quickly morph into quackery. Buyer beware.
It's reassuring to say that 70 is the new 50, and there's solid evidence to back up Grandpa's higher energy levels as the result of emerging science, but if he looks in the mirror and sees the taut facial skin of a primetime star, he's hallucinating.
When writer Gregg Easterbrook visited the Buck Institute in Marin County, California, the first private research institute dedicated to extending the life span, where the researchers are lean, exercise junkies nibbling on "ascetic" lunches, he couldn't help but notice aging wrinkles around the eyes of Brian Kennedy, the 47-year old CEO. Human cells simply stop repairing themselves around age 50, he writes in the Atlantic Monthly, no matter how a man lives.
Institute researchers have quintupled the life span of laboratory worms, but even a "glow worm" of the human species, as Winston Churchill imagined he might be, can't find a way to slow the aging process. Chronic diseases increase after 50, when aging or senescent cells increase in number.
"If we can figure out how to eliminate senescent cells or switch off their secretions," says Judith Campisi, who runs research on the subject for the Buck Institute, "then we could prevent or lessen the impact of many chronic diseases of aging." Scientists are now calling for a more inter-disciplinary approach to problems of chronic disease and aging. If old age can't be cured, perhaps it can be treated better.
Celebrations of the 50th birthday remain mixed with joy and trepidation because the switch to stop cell senescence like the fountain of youth has not been discovered. The late-blooming Boomers have become transitional figures moving into post-modern old age, still enjoying strength in their abilities and showing healthy looks in face and figure, but with a creeping view of diminishment that has political and economic consequences.
We need to find a voice for reform before benefits evaporate and the old man of last year and the baby of the New Year are depicted with less felicity because they represent major generational conflicts and confrontations. We toast the New Year, but it's the years that follow we have to worry about. Happy New Year, anyway.