The Vagaries of Aging


The Vagaries of Aging

Last week, I read an article about Buster Martin, who is 101 years old and currently Britain's oldest employee. If that fact were not impressive enough, Buster is aiming to become the world's oldest marathoner, beating the previous record set by a 93–year–old. If there were any doubt that he was serious about this record, the article mentioned that he's already done a half–marathon this year. After reading the article, besides wondering if the name Buster has any correlation to extended longevity as a result of some inherent gene toughness, I was reminded of a bike ride I did last fall.

Now I consider myself to be in fairly good shape, but had not done my town's annual 100 kilometer bike ride in seven years. I started out the bike ride just fine, but by half way, I was really beginning to feel it in my knees. At around the last two kilometers mark of the ride–when I saw a spectator holding up a sign promising Advil® and beer at the finish–I could feel the stinging combination of thirst and flaming muscles envelope my body. I finished, but, oh boy, did I feel it for the next few days–barely able to walk stairs without a sharp, burning pain. Fortunately, one of my riding partners for the day–my 83–year–old father–in–law, Gil–breezed in with barely more than a regular workout sweat.

Gil, who has been the oldest participant in this particular ride for the last few years, had the advantage over me of not having taken a seven–year break from the annual event. Also, for an octogenarian, he has an interesting custom that I'm sure helps out. Every year on his birthday, he bike rides the same number of kilometers as his age.

So, reading about Buster reminded me of the same feeling of fascination and wonderment I had, when a man approximately twice my age barely broke a sweat, while my thighs appeared to send red heat waves rising above them like in a commercial for Tylenol®. As I mentioned, I consider myself in reasonably good shape, but the prospect of bike rides with double digit mileage some 40 years from now seems to me almost certainly out of reach, let alone the idea of marathoning centenarians. What is it about aging that produces such disparate results?

Speaking of aging, this edition of The Actuary launches a series of articles inspired by the 2008 Living to 100 Symposium that was held in Orlando, Florida in January. After attending the three–day event with the intention of writing one or two articles, a number of us agreed that the richness and diversity of the material begged for more coverage. As well, the editors of The Actuary agreed and hence, this issue's initiation of the series with an article featuring highlights from the Symposium. Future editions will cover a wide range of Living to 100 topics including implications of increasing longevity, an actuarial perspective on health and aging and the impact of obesity on longevity.

I remember when I attended the first Symposium in 2002, the phrase "Living to 100," immediately conjured up for me the Busters of the world–those invincible specimens living into their 100s, perhaps even persisting in some unhealthy habits like smoking and drinking that seemed to fly in the face of commonly accepted health practices. Although these healthy centenarians are incredibly fascinating, there is a flipside to living to 100 and beyond that is equally important, but not so fun. As we know, for many, living into late ages is not a time of bike rides and marathons, but periods of frailty accompanied by diminishing mental capacity.

To me, the ultimate message of the Living to 100 series of Symposia is that we humans are, by nature, subject to the vagaries of aging imploring us to learn more about it not only through a scientific perspective, but also about its immediate implications to our daily lives. This multifaceted way of looking at aging and gathering together leading thinkers to debate in a highly interactive forum is what the Symposium does so well. No wonder planning for the next one is already underway.

On a final note, I confess to my own personal wish to be active in old age, and if it does turn out that there is a connection with the name Buster to aging, I'm heading to city hall for a change of name form.

Steven Siegel
SOA Research Actuary