Live Long and Save the Planet

When you have a child and you’ve had at least a few years to watch them grow, it’s natural to begin to reflect on the different stages of human life. At my age (I’m 37), I’m not generally interested in issues that affect the elderly. It seems like the grandmother stage is very far away, something I can’t even picture very well.

That’s why I was surprised to find myself intrigued by the subject of Saturday’s World Health Day on healthy aging. I always find the World Health Organization’s studies, and the global perspective they bring to interpreting their studies, to be mind expanding, but this year’s Global Brief and the investigation it initiated was more than just mind expanding…it was literally self expanding. By the end, not only were my own elder years no longer an abstract and little thought of picture of the strong woman I hope to be, but an integral aspect of a healthy and thriving planet.

World Health Day 2012 took a fresh look at a lot of the health data on aging in order to better understand what creates vibrancy in old age. Its intention was to highlight a global health issue that gets little media attention, but represents a growing shift in humanity’s presence on earth. Our population is aging, which means that the percentage of the human population that is living beyond 65 is increasing as the birth rate is decreasing. What started in the most developed nations of North America and Europe has rapidly moved into nations like Chile, China, Iran, and elsewhere, where the aging of the population is happening at an even greater rate, leaving less time for the countries to adapt to the needs of an older population. In fact, the number of people aged 80 years will almost quadruple by 2050.

Living in a culture that worships youth and beauty above age and wisdom, this got me thinking about all the ways we will have to shift our ideals. I was also curious to find out more about how this change in our worldwide demographic could affect the environment, and came across some work by the EPA and the European Commission on just this subject. In a nutshell, it was depressing research revealing dystopian accounts of a world filled with highly dependent people with dementia, an overload of prescription drugs in our drinking water, and walkers filling up the landfills…!

But it was also an overly simple projection of today’s older population onto the future about 50 years out, which doesn’t take into account a shift that could happen in our generation towards a healthier lifestyle. In fact, new understandings of how to create health habits that generate vibrancy for years to come around diet, exercise, sleep, and living a meaningful life are coming to our bookshelves and inboxes all the time. (My latest favorite book on this subject is called The End of Illness, which is filled with great advice based on sound research and the care and life experience of a very observant cancer doctor.)

What strikes me the most is that I had never realized just how important our health is to the future of our planet. Being involved in health care and environmental activism for many years, I’ve thought a lot about the impact of pollution and toxins on our health, but I’ve never considered the difference a healthy aging population could have on the overall health of the planet. In this expanded sense, my health is no longer really just mine. My health is not separate from the planet’s and from the future of humanity as a whole.

The great news is, finding a reason bigger than ourselves to do something is always the best motivator. When our perspective on the significance of our own lives expands, it can often bring a needed backdraft to our efforts. I want to encourage everyone to take this to heart and consider the importance of your own health as you think about caring for the planet. Rather than passively careening on a collision course toward a social and environmental dystopia, I intend to help create a world that not only has beautifully strong and engaged older people, but that benefits in ways we can’t even imagine from the wisdom of a mature humanity.

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