If you're a boomer who thinks age is just a number and you're only as old as you feel, Susan Jacoby has news for you. Growing old is not a lifestyle choice, she writes in Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age.
A daily regimen of brain-fitness games won't decrease your 30-per-cent chance of having dementia when you die. And no amount of exercise or antioxidants can change the strong likelihood that your 80s and 90s - if you're lucky enough to reach them - will be marked by losses ranging from autonomy to loved ones. Her book suggests that the jaunty 90-year-old mountaineers featured in news stories about aging are as close to the norm as Joan Rivers's preternaturally stretched face. That hasn't stopped "hucksters of longevity" from making a fortune from the fantasy.
Ms. Jacoby, a self-described realist who recently turned 65, explains the downside of clinging to the hope that medical science and our own good habits will keep us "wellderly" instead of "illderly" for the rest of our lives.
What's wrong with seeing the golden years through rose-coloured glasses?
What's wrong is it's not true. Good health habits, taking care of yourself, mental activity, exercise - these will help you be as healthy as possible at any age. What's wrong is viewing this as a kind of magic that will protect us from the "disease" of old age. We can get our knees replaced and our hips replaced - which was only a science-fiction fantasy for our parents' generation - but this doesn't change the basic reality that as people move from the "young old" of the 60s and 70s to the "old old" of the 80s and 90s, every part of the body begins to wear out.
What about medical breakthroughs in stem-cell research and drugs such as resveratrol, which has lowered the rates of Alzheimer's disease in mice?
I have all the optimism about science in the world, just not the assumption that these things are going to happen easily or for my generation. GlaxoSmithKline announced two months ago that it has dropped its resveratrol research because it doesn't look like a fruitful avenue of research. The story was buried inside The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. But the stories about resveratrol's great potential were all over the front pages. Why? Because everybody loves the idea. One thing we do know is resveratrol supplements have no scientific value whatsoever. But they're still doing a booming business.
Close to half of people over 85 will get some form of dementia. Why are we told that dementia is not part of normal aging?
There was originally a very good motive for that. It was a way of saying there are a lot of people who don't have it. The bad thing is it is downplaying the prevalence of it so we won't stereotype all old people as demented. The figure that's used over and over again is that 10 per cent of people over 65 have it. Well, that doesn't sound so bad. But talking about people over 65 as if they were all one group is in itself a lie.
How could boomers end up less healthy than their parents in old age?
Boomers are more obese than their parents were at the same age. The only thing the boomer generation is actually better at is we smoke in smaller numbers.
What's missing in media stories about 85-year-old marathoners?
What they shouldn't do is present this as something that's possible for everyone, and that if you don't attain it, somehow you're morally deficient and have bad health habits. You may simply have genes which don't enable you to be as healthy at that age. [And]there is such a big difference between the old age of people who are well off and those who are not.
What did you make of 94-year-old Kirk Douglas's performance at the Oscars?
I think it's disgusting how many people questioned whether he should have been brought on the stage, the propriety of it. Kirk Douglas obviously has a lot of his mind there and got through it just fine. But he is not the Kirk Douglas people remember. He is now visibly a very old and frail man. What they want to see as the image of aging is Betty White, who still looks much younger than she is.
What's flawed about large telephone surveys that find seniors are sexually active and happier than younger people?
Some of these studies, like the Gallup poll, don't even interview people over 85. It's also true that people who aren't doing so well might not answer the phone - and, of course, the surveys leave out the institutionalized population. As for sexual enjoyment, what the studies show is that it persists into the 60s, 70, 80s, even the 90s. But sexual satisfaction requires a partner.
Your grandmother lived almost to 100 and had her own apartment into her 90s. Wasn't she a shining example of old age?
She was until she wasn't. The last five years of her life were a torment to her. I think one of the things we really lack is a way for the half of old people who do have sound minds to contribute. My grandmother could have taught children how to cook, she loved children. But there was no social mechanism to bring her together with the people she could have helped.
Could we learn something from first nations about how to treat elders?
I'm very suspicious of all kinds of talk about how other cultures or past embodiments of our own culture treated old people. A hundred years ago, there were very few people who lived beyond the age of 50 or 60. It's easy to respect your elders when there aren't very many of them.
This interview has been edited and condensed.