Changing focus from 'growing old' to 'living long' matters to Laura Carstensen

Laura Carstensen

Laura Carstensen

Laura Carstensen's goal as a psychologist is to change fundamentally the way society looks at aging.

"I believe there's a societal crisis right now, [which is] described as the graying of America and of the industrialized world," she said. This "crisis," she said, is often discussed in terms of how society is going to cope with an older population in need of medical care and financial support. For most of human evolution, she said, life expectancy was 27 years. By 1900, it had jumped to 47 years. Today, it is 77 years and longer.

While better sanitation, diet and health care are responsible for longer lives, related social mores, norms and institutions have not adapted to accommodate this change, Carstensen said. "We have nearly doubled life expectancy in less than a century, but … we are living lives based on a life expectancy of 47," she said. As a result, society is asking the wrong questions about aging that the professor argued will lead to bad solutions such as "rationing health care and shipping off old people somewhere."

The psychology professor told an audience on Jan. 12 attending "What Matters to Me and Why," a noontime speaker series in Memorial Church, that she wants to be part of changing this big question from one that focuses on "growing old" to "living long." "How do we throw everything we have in terms of science, technology, behavior change and culture change at added years of life, such that people arrive at old age mentally sharp and physically fit?" she asked.

Carstensen, director of the Life-span Development Lab and a nationally respected expert on aging, said the extra three decades people live today do not have to be tacked on to the end of life—they could be placed anywhere. "Life courses are social constructions, not a biological determination of when you reach middle age," she said. One new model of life Carstensen proposes could include a person getting an education by 20 years, then "retiring" until 40, during which period one could find a partner, raise a family and discover one's talents and interests. Then people would join the workforce until they reach 80, when there would be a mandatory draft. "Some of this is tongue-in-cheek, but I'm quite serious about structuring life," she said. "I think the world would be a safer place."

Similar to many academics, Carstensen said she cannot separate her personal life from her professional one. She is married to Ian Gotlib, also a Stanford psychology professor and director of the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Laboratory. "Because we work such long hours, who we are becomes part of what we do," Carstensen said. "Our colleagues become part of our family. There's a blurring of friendship and colleagueship—that's a wonderful thing. Work becomes life—it becomes rewarding, enjoyable and pleasant. It doesn't feel like work."

Beyond her lofty professional goals, Carstensen said her family—both immediate and extended—is what matters to her. She said such complex social relationships, which she described as social convoys, are what buffer people through life. "They form a kind of a cocoon, without which life would be too hard to manage," she said.

Carstensen said a guiding principle about such relationships is to think small. "This is something that flies in the face of what we're told at Stanford, which is to think grand," she said. "But I deeply believe at the end of a life what matters is the small things: taking time for somebody; being helpful when you can. It's [about] going out of your way. It's slowing down for another person. It's these small things that define who we are." Carstensen admitted she does not always live this way, but it is one thing she strives toward.