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Don’t Tuck Me In

<i> UCLA School of Medicine professor and former Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins, who died Friday, contributed occasional articles to The Times' Commentary page. This was his latest:</i>

The worst thing about being 75 years old is being treated as a 75-year-old.

Not so long ago, an airline attendant would simply hand me a blanket. Now they spread it open and tuck me in. The young lady in the theater box office doesn’t ask me for proof of my age before punching out a reduced-price ticket. My 10-year-old granddaughter has volunteered the calculation that I have lived more than one-third of the time since the birth of the United States and more than one-half the time since the Civil War. Worst of all is getting on the crowded shuttle bus at UCLA and having several young women spring to their feet and offer you their seat.

People as a whole have yet to catch up with the fact that the increase in longevity--from 44 to 74 since the turn of the century--has been marked by a corresponding prolongation of good health and intellectual acuity. Research by Dr. George Solomon and his colleagues at UCLA challenges the prevailing notion that there is an automatic deterioration of the immune system beginning at age 50. Testing of a significant number of people beyond the age of 75 shows that immune capability resists deterioration so long as reasonably good health is retained.

The greatest need of the elderly is to change the attitude of society toward aging. A numbers game dominates public thinking. Retirement policies are based on the absurd notion that human capacity falls off significantly at a specified age. Sixty-five was the critical number until very recently. Sixty-eight or 70 is coming into favor as the dividing line. It is undoubtedly true that a decline in various capacities occurs in many people with advancing age, but that varies with the individual. The more significant truth produced by current research is that people can be fully functional 10 or 15 years beyond the customary designated numbers.

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No one gets out of this world alive. There is always the statistically certain accident or fatal illness, if one lives long enough. For a nation that needs as many brains and hands as it can apply, arbitrary standards about aging are not in the national or human interest. We need to develop workable new tests based on functional age rather than chronological absurdities.

No disease in the United States--not cancer, not heart disease, not diabetes, not multiple sclerosis--is more lethal than the boredom that follows retirement. The body goes into a state of rapid deterioration when it loses its reason for being, when mind and muscle are not put to use, and when the individual is surrounded by the perception of society that he or she no longer serves a useful purpose.

Society needs to recognize that its seasoned people are a continuing and indispensable resource. This acceptance can produce all sorts of wonders. Put it to the test.


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