Over the last century, Americans have added an unprecedented 30 years to their life spans. But most people still rarely think about or plan for the possibility of living until 80, 90, 100 years and beyond.

four multi-ethnic seniors sitting together outdoors, talking and laughing

The Sightlines project at the Center for Longevity is designed to encourage research and discussion into how to optimize well-being as we live longer lives. (Image credit: kali9 / Getty Images)

The Stanford Center on Longevity hopes to ignite a cultural shift in the ways people think about and design longer lives to optimize well-being throughout all stages of a person’s life.

This week, the center released the Sightlines project website as part of its goal to stir conversation about what leads to long, healthy living and to encourage more policymakers, entrepreneurs and members of the public to think about ways of redesigning the human life.

“Our aim is to help people have a long-term view of their life,” said Laura Carstensen, a professor of psychology and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. “We’re trying to help people think about living lives as older people much earlier in their lives.”

Diving deeper into data

The Sightlines project launched a year ago with a study the center conducted to understand how well Americans are prepared for longer lives. Since then the project has become a flagship of the center.

As part of the study, researchers worked together to identify prevalent indicators of longevity spanning three domains: healthy living, financial security and social engagement. To paint a portrait of Americans’ standing in these domains, the team compiled data from eight nationally representative surveys and analyzed trends across six age groups in the U.S. population in recent years and among previous cohorts ranging from 10 to 20 years earlier.

The research showed that the biggest negative change over time has been the declining percentage of Americans who are doing well financially. Financial security is less common among Americans in 2014 compared with 2000, especially among the least educated population. In addition, the average debt the Millennials, ages 25 to 34, are facing is five times higher than the debt the same age group carried 15 years ago, according to the research.

Another finding showed that the baby boom generation is less socially engaged than 55- to 64-year-olds in 1995. Baby boomers tend to have weaker ties to family, friends and neighbors, are less likely to be married and are less likely to participate in religious or community activities compared with the same age group of 20 years ago.

When it comes to health, data revealed that more Americans are exercising regularly for the first time in decades. Risky behaviors, like smoking, have also been on a steady decline across every age group.

But the 2016 study was just the starting point for the researchers’ vision. Over the past year, the team has designed an interactive website showcasing the comprehensive sets of findings from the 2016 study as well as relevant work being done by faculty at Stanford and around the country.

“Our hope for developing the website is not just to present our thinking about this topic, but to engage and iterate with people beyond our center as part of an ongoing, evolving discussion focused on preparing Americans for long-lived lives,” said Tamara Sims, a research scientist at the Stanford Center on Longevity.

The Sightlines team created interactive data visualizations to provide a deeper look at changes within the American population, not just by age group, but also by gender, ethnicity, education, income, marital status and geographical region where data are available.

The results allow researchers, including Sims, to identify new patterns in the data.

“We are offering unique kinds of comparisons,” Carstensen said.

For example, recent analyses show that although home ownership has declined for younger generations from 2000 to 2014, young Asian Americans showed no decline in contrast to other ethnic minorities.

Another finding showed that more educated people, who tend to be doing well across most indicators of well-being, are more likely to sit for long stretches of time, which recently emerged as an independent risk factor for health.

“The biggest lesson from this next phase of the Sightlines project is that we can’t make sweeping generalizations about different generations of Americans or about different domains of well-being, for that matter,” Sims said. “There are always caveats that need to be considered and further explored.”

Here for the long haul

Carstensen and her team intend for the project to become a connection point for experts around the world who are interested in enhancing human longevity.

In addition to stimulating conversations and informing decisions among influencers and leaders in private and public industry, the project’s website can also serve as a research tool by providing scientists with findings and metrics most relevant for designing comparative studies and developing and assessing the effectiveness of interventions.

Carstensen and her team plan on updating their 2016 research in about five years as new survey data is released. The team used data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Census Bureau; the University of Michigan and the National Institute on Aging; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the Federal Reserve System; and the University of Wisconsin and the National Institute on Aging.

But analyzing existing data limits researchers because some areas that are important to longevity, such as social engagement, are understudied.

So Carstensen, Sims and the Sightlines team intend to work with experts to develop better ways of assessing well-being across the life span and collect more data.

For example, experts have been debating about how to best measure the diet of Americans. Currently, the national benchmark for a healthy diet is measured as eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

“Is there a gold standard of measuring diet that we should use going forward?” Sims said. “We are working with faculty affiliates and other experts to tackle such questions.”

A next step for the Sightlines project is to develop a comprehensive survey to assess all domains among the same group of people over time and to find answers to questions raised by the original report. Researchers plan to make the survey available online sometime later this year.