Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Aging in America: Alternatives to Government Policies

The first Boston Marathon measured 24.5 miles. “On April 19, 1897, John J. McDermott of New York, emerged from a 15-member starting field and captured the first B.A.A. Marathon in 2:55:10.”   In 2006, that mark would place him 5th among the women age 40-49 (Gina M. McGee, 2:55:03).  However, the modern race is longer.  Therefore, today, McDermott would beat all of the women 50-59, but none of the women 40-49.  His time calculated for the longer course would be the same as John Smallwood, in the Men’s Age 60-69 who clocked 3:10:44. 
(This post is based on a term paper for an undergraduate class in Social Problems, Winter 2008.)
May 1970
Standard textbooks for classes in sociology present aging in generally the same ways that they present racism, war, and poverty.  However, by studying discrimination, inequality, stratification, poverty, war, and other problems, we are supposed to be prepared to deal with them, perhaps to solve them forever. 
And so the old joke goes Q:  How many sociologists does it take to change a light bulb? A:  The light bulb does not need changing.  It is society that needs to be changed.   
Sociologists portray people above some arbitrary age as a disabled minority, needful of government programs.  Solutions for individuals are not in the toolset of sociologists.  After, all it is society that needs to be changed.  The objective truth is that aging is not inevitable. 

The Need for Reforms” is a section subhead in the chapter on “Aging in a Youth Oriented Society” in Hardert et al. Confronting Social Problems (West Publishing, 1984). The book says: “Government officials have been aware of the special needs of our older population for some time.  … Federal programs have proliferated…” and it lists some of the many, citing a total of 48 major federal programs (pp 118-119):
  • The Administration on Aging, Department of Health and Human Services
  • Comprehensive Older Americans Act of 1965
  • Comprehensive Older American Act Amendments of 1978
  • Social Security Administration
  • Medicaid and Medicare
  • Supplemental Security Income
  • Healthcare Financing Administration
The authors recommend volunteering for work as one solution to social isolation “Activity theory encourages volunteerism among the elderly replacing lost work roles [paid] with unpaid involvement.” (page 120)  Certainly, under normal conditions volunteering is the noblesse oblige of the wealthy.  But unpaid labor is the very definition of slavery.

Rochelle Jones (The Other Generation: The New Power of Older People) equates the government with the economy:  “… the economic ‘pie’ is limited.  To say yes to expand or improve programs for older Americans is to say no to the needs of other sectors of the economy.”  (page 121)  It is true that government funding is limited, but the fact ist that under socialism, they divide the pie fairly, but under capitalism we bake more pies. (Actually, we bake a lot of alternatives and you are free to choose.) 

 John Macionis is perhaps the leading author of college textbooks for sociology in the USA.  (Globally, it is Sir Anthony Giddens.)  Discussing “Aging and Inequality” in Social Problems  (Pearson Prentice-Hall. 2002) Macionis says (page 120) that we have gone from the gerontocracy of preindustrial societies to “the elderly as a social problem” in industrial societies.  According to Macionis, capitalism devalues those who cannot contribute labor so the old are a cost burden.  A socialist society would care for the elderly as it cares for all of its citizens.  (pp138-139).  This ignores both Lenin and Saint Paul who alike decreed that he who does not work shall not eat.  In The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski tells of the Bakhtiari of southwest Iran who abandon their old when they move their herds.  In the utopian (or dystopian) novels Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and This Perfect Day by Ira Levin, people end their lives at age sixty by order. 

May 2008

In Stanley D. Eitzen and Maxine Baca Zinn Social Problems (4th ed, Allyn and Bacon, 1989), the authors offer this (page 297): “The thesis of this chapter is that old eople constitute a minority group in our youth-worshipping society, with a high visible trait – an aged body – that makes them different from the majority.  They are relatively powerless.  Their behavior and traits are stereotyped and regularly depreciated and devalued by the dominant group.  And, most important, because of their age, the elderly are singled out for differential and unfair treatment.” That was over 20 years ago, and was defined by the attitudes of the ascendant Baby Boomers who 20 years before that did not trust anyone over 30.  This is an example of conflict between groups - a sociological fact.  It does not prove that even then, old people were the underclass.  Today, we surely are not.  Old people vote and young people do not, thus who is the dominant group is arguable.  Moreover where oldest and youngest workers compete directly (retail and fastfood), the seniors have the advantage, being desired for reliability and judgment.

Kathryn A. Dietrich's 2007 work, Instructor’s Resource Manual with Test Bank for Mooney, Knox and Schacht’s Understanding Social Problems (Fifth Edition) continues the claim that seniors are an underclass..  “In 2003, median income for individuals age 65 and above was $14,000 with 29.3% reported incomes of $10,000 or less.”  (page 527) When individuals live together, it is their combined incomes that counts.  In America, about 70% of all people own their own homes, with ownership highest among the older groups.   Moreover, older homeowners typically pay no mortgage.  They can borrow against the equity of their homes with negative mortgages.  Their incomes from investments, annuities and funds may or may not be reportable and other incomes may not be reported.  Non-working children are the single biggest drain on family income; and most seniors have not accepted that commitment. 

            The plight of those who are trapped in harsh circumstances must not be overlooked, but neither should it be generalized beyond its bounds.  Aging necessitates increased medical care.  Even if there is nothing wrong – or more likely, nothing symptomatic – regular medical checkups are critical to health maintenance.  Office visits cost money.  So do prescriptions and other regimens.  That said, the fact is that the present generation of elders is far better off than any previous generation.  Those following the Baby Boomers have every reason to expect even better outcomes. 
            Medical care is more than fixing things that are wrong.  “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” says the old adage.  “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” reminds us about the importance of diet in general and vitamin C in particular.  Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) was the key to Linus Pauling’s recommendations for longevity.   Pauling himself took three grams of it every day.  He live to be 93.  When he was born in 1901, his life expectancy was 49.6 years.
The statistical probability of living longer is increasing.  The Social Security Administration actuarial tables give you zero probability of another year after 80, but continue the tables to 110 years of age to account for the increasing number of people who outlive their expectancy.  

Pauling’s recommendation for ascorbic acid remains controversial and not generally recognized by the medical community.  However, the theory is sound.  Like other vitamins, ascorbic is an anti-oxidant.  As such it protects against and repairs damage caused by free radicals.  The free radical theory of aging developed by Denham Harman.   Free radicals are partial compounds within the chemistry of the body.  Some are necessary.  Others float about as a kind of garbage, attaching themselves where they are neither needed nor wanted.  Free radicals damage fats, proteins, and nucleic acids.  Peroxidized fats cause arterial plaque.  Free radicals attack DNA and RNA causing cancer.  When lysosomal membranes are broken down by free radicals, the released enzymes (acid hydrolases) cause rheumatoid arthritis.   Just about all vitamins have anti-oxidant qualities, though C, A and the family of E seem to be the strongest actors.  In addition, chemicals BHT and BHA  commonly found in foods in America also protect against free radicals.  Some theorize that the addition of these preservatives to our processed foods has been responsible for the lower rates of stomach cancers among Americans and compared to other industrialized populations.

            Free radical theory is just one of several approaches to life extension.  Aging is not one thing, but a combination of processes and experiences. 
  • Aubrey de Grey developed Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence and explained his theories in several books.  The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging earned him a special doctorate from Cambridge. 
  • John Sperling (founder of the University of Phoenix) has a project called “Genetic Savings and Clone” which failed to reproduce a dog, but which did create one CopyCat. 
  • Ray Kurzweil inventor of optical character scanning, digitized audio and other technologies wrote Fantastic Voyage: Life Long Enough to Live Forever  and four other books on the same theme.  Kurzweil believes that future technology derived from the frontiers of today’s computers will enable us to store the essential aspects of personality in a useful, interactive format.  
  • Cryonics is not “freezing”  but lowering body temperature may allow long-term storage and recovery of a human body.  The goal might be to hold you until a cure can be found for some serious problem.  Some people might prefer a slow trip into the far future. 
            Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw collected much of this information about free radicals and other theories for their books Life Extension a Practical Scientific Approach and The Life Extension Companion. 


  1. I find it extremely ironic that many who labor to inspire others to ingest as many antioxidants as possible via fruits and vegetables abhor the thought of purposefully ingesting preservatives like BHA, BHT, and potassium metabisulfite. All are purified forms of the chemicals they seek in "healthy foods;" all combat the degradation of living tissue by oxygen.

  2. I feel the same way about genetically-modified organisms.

  3. Fauja Singh, 100, of the United Kingdom, is expected to run the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon on Sunday [October 16, 2011] in Canada. If he completes it, Guinness World Records will recognize him as the world’s oldest marathoner.

    Guinness had recognized Dimitrion Yordanidis, 98, as the world’s oldest marathoner for running in Athens in 1976. Yordanidis isn’t among the records kept by the Association of Road Racing Statisticians, which already recognizes Fauja Singh as the oldest for the last marathon he ran, at age 93 in 2004.

    Singh, nicknamed the Turbaned Tornado, took up running 20 years ago ... He began running marathons at 89, completing seven through age 93. He set the current world record for people 90 and older with a time of five hours, 40 minutes and four seconds in Toronto in 2003.

    CNN News here.