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People Age Slower Today Than They Did 50 Years Ago: Nov 19, 2017

November 19, 2017 5 comments

As I once mentioned in an older post, one of my favorite pastimes involving searching for photos and videos for anything which might catch my fancy. Because of this habit, I have spent many thousands of hours learning about stuff which I would not have otherwise encountered. A side effect of this habit is the ability to discern patterns of human activity and behavior that are not otherwise not readily obvious- including insights into what people are thinking.

For example, no west-european backpackers trip to India is complete without dozens of photos of garbage, stray cows and beggars. What makes this a bit odd is that it is obvious that they went to considerable lengths to find the right spot and angle to take those photos. So why go to such lengths just to get those photos? Especially when they take care to not take or post such photos from their trips to African countries.

But this post isn’t about insights gleaned from looking at a shitload of photos from white west-european backpackers. It is about something far more substantive and supported by other independent lines of evidence. I am sure that many of you might have also noticed that people look younger in photos from the last 15 (or so) years than their similarly aged counterparts from 50 or even 30 years ago. Why is that so? And, is this effect illusory or real?

I first noticed this effect when looking at unretouched photos of famous older actors and musicians taken when they were much younger (often in their late teens, 20s or 30s). In almost every single case, celebrities who were in that age group during the 1960s-1980s timespan looked about a decade older than their equivalents today. Initially, I thought that it might be linked to how people dressed or styled their hair during that era as compared to today.

However this effect is also apparent, to the same extent, in photos of non-celebrities from that era. While certain styles of dress and makeup do accentuate it, it is hard to deny that people born after 1970 do look about a decade younger at the same chronological age as their parents. I mean, it is obvious when I look at photos of my parents and their cousins versus myself and my cousins. But is that enough to make the case that people age about a decade slower than 50 or even 30 years ago?

For this, we have to start looking at the incidence of aging-related diseases- specifically outcomes rather than by some vague criteria as defined by “experts”. We can also look at career longevity of athletes in physically demanding sports at international levels. While I do not have the time or motivation to post the statistics, it is clear that the careers of athletes in a range of sports such as basketball, tennis and swimming are noticeably longer than in the past.

While some of this increase can be attributed to improvements in sports medicine, the effect is spread across a wide number of sports rather than being concentrated in those which provide huge monetary rewards to players. So clearly, something else is at work. And coming back to the issue of aging-related diseases in non-athletes, they too tend to be noticeably lower in the younger cohort than their parent’s generation at the same age. Is it just a “healthier” lifestyle or something else?

While people will try to make the case that it is about a “healthier lifestyle” or “healthier choices”, I think it has something to do with the lack of certain things rather than following any guidelines. For example- the rates of cigarette smoking, exposure to lead and other heavy metals, exposure to other hazardous chemicals, poor working conditions etc are far lower for those born after 1970 than those born before that date. The same is true of many other sources of chronic stress such as extreme poverty, periods of material deprivation etc.

Maybe part of aging is due to chronic exposure to adverse conditions and less than optimal nutrition and medical care. Note that I am not claiming that aging is mostly due to external factors- but it is pretty clear to me that a decade or two of supposedly “normal” aging comes down to less than optimal living conditions. This is especially obvious when you compare people who are biologically related but then end up living in different countries and environments.

There is also the other issue of jobs becoming less physically demanding and damaging over that time period. We cannot also forget that women who have few or no kids tend to age at a noticeably slower rate than those with many kids. But my general observation and theory still holds. The slower aging of people born after 1970 is real and has something to do with experiencing significantly fewer stressors and noxious insults to their body in comparison to previous generations.

What do they think? Comments?