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Centering on Longevity

A letter from the Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity

I’ll never forget the voice on the other end of the phone saying, “This is important. What do you need?”

That was almost three years ago, and the voice was that of Richard Rainwater, the legendary Texas investor and Stanford Graduate School of Business alumnus. He had just read a story in Stanford Magazine about what a number of Stanford faculty members and I consider one of the most urgent challenges of our time: adapting our culture to a rapidly aging population. After several conversations with Mr. Rainwater, he committed $10 million to help us build what is today the Stanford Center on Longevity to improve the course of human aging.

Those who age well do not do so accidentally or because it was dictated by their genes. Rather, it is the achievement of deliberate actions, good planning and culture. By “culture,” I do not mean simply the languages that people speak or the attitudes they hold. Science and technology are very much part of culture. When Congress decides to allocate funds for research, it does so because citizens perceive particular needs. Until recently, however, there have been only modest efforts to use science and technology to improve human aging. Myths and gaps in our culture’s understanding of older people, as well as widespread misconceptions about old age, further hinder the flowering of a culture in which people age well.

That has to change. Fortunately, many of my Stanford colleagues throughout the campus are working on research that offers hope that we can help a greater number of people age healthfully and happily. These steps include changing our health-care system, our entitlement programs, our personal behaviors and lifestyles, and our appreciation of not only the unique challenges of aging but the great value older people contribute to a society. Achieving change on a scale this big requires a wholesale shift in the culture. The center is issuing an invitation to the best minds in academia and to our business and government colleagues to target the most important challenges an older population faces, and come up with solutions.

Ambitious? Absolutely. There is nothing like the Center on Longevity anywhere. We are not a gerontology center, nor are we even focused solely on aging. We are a laboratory studying the nature and development of the entire human life span, looking for innovative ways to solve the problems of people over 50 and improve the well-being of people of all ages.

Today, we are proud to say that more than 100 Stanford faculty members have joined the center as affiliates. Their research spans a remarkable gamut, from examining strategies for developing healthy nutritional habits, to building assistive robots, to pursuing stem cell research offering insights into the healing process. Unlike most academic enterprises, the Center on Longevity also aims to speed the development of commercial solutions and rational policies to improve the lives of people worldwide. In that vein, few conversations are as important today as the need to reform health care to make it more affordable and accessible to people of all ages. We are bringing together renowned academics and political experts to talk about practical solutions in our Health Security and the Presidency Project.

Research is our most potent tool in the quest to help our culture adapt to the phenomenon of more people living longer than ever before. At the Center on Longevity, we are determined to make sure that research findings do not stay locked away in academia but reach the people who can most benefit from them. To that end, we are pleased to join with Stanford Medicine in shedding some insights on the changes, challenges and opportunities we all face.

Laura L. Carstensen, PhD
Director, Stanford Center on Longevity

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Q&A with Laura Carstensen

Laura Carstensen discusses some of the myths about aging.





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