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60: The New 45

Many healthy Boomers are rejecting the notion of graceful retirement in later life

WEDNESDAY, Aug. 30, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Thirty years ago, Olga Bloom, a professional violinist living in New York City, was celebrating her 57th birthday and thinking hard about how she'd spend whatever years lay ahead.

"I didn't retire," said Bloom, now 87, in a recent interview. "I had stopped working in New York as a musician, but I knew I wasn't just going to sit in a garden and 'wait.' "

Instead, she bought herself a barge.

With it, Bloom founded Barge Music, and today she still runs her decades-old chamber music "floating concert hall" that is anchored in New York City's East River.

As she "pushes toward 90," Bloom said she's grateful for the time and opportunity she's had to help others while doing something she loves. Her advice to the estimated 78 million Baby Boomers who are now reaching age 60: "Look around you, and find that place to be generous."

Many of the millions of Americans born between 1946 and 1964 are taking Bloom's advice to heart. Experts say the post-World War II generation is changing the very definition of "old" age. For many, 60 is the not only the new 50 -- it's the new 45.

"There was this magical age of 65 proposed for retirement in the 19th century, but I think that's very out of fashion now," said Bloom's physician, Dr. Barbara Paris, vice chairwoman of medicine and director of the department of geriatrics at Maimonides Medical Center, in New York City.

"Baby Boomers just aren't thinking that way anymore," she said. "Especially if they have financial independence, they're going to retire from whatever boring job they have and do what they want to do for the next 20, 30 years."

Statistically speaking, the average 60-year-old American can look forward to at least another 20 years of life, Paris said, and probably more. In fact, the insurance industry recently revamped its actuarial tables to reflect life spans that now top-off at a grizzled 120.

The world's oldest man, a Puerto Rican named Emiliano Mercado del Toro, turned 115 last week. And the oldest woman, Maria Esther de Capovilla of Ecuador, died Monday at 116, the Associated Press reported.

Paris said very few people can expect to live that long, but "it's reasonable that more of us will live to be over 100."

There's also a continuing trend toward what experts call the "compression of morbidity."

"Essentially, the bad things that happen when you are sick is being compressed now into a shorter period at the very end of your life," Paris explained. That means that today's over-60s can expect less debilitating, chronic illness than their parents faced, giving them more active, productive lives.

"In fact, whereas death rates are declining now by about 1 percent per year, morbidity is declining twice as quickly, at 2 percent per year," Paris said.

Better health is even changing the nature of geriatrics, said Paris, who's been practicing in the field for more than 30 years. "When I started out, anybody over 65 was my patient," she said. "Now, I rarely see a patient under 75."

She credits the increasing pep of America's older citizens on improvements in preventive medicine, advances in drug development and innovative medical technologies -- especially in areas such as joint replacement and the management of cardiovascular disease.

Drugs such as Viagra, Cialis and Levitra have even given a boost to aging Americans' sex lives. One recent U.S.-European study found men in their 50s were now happier with their sex lives than men in their 30s. In another survey, conducted in 1998, 43 percent of both men and women over 60 said sex was as good for them now as it was in their youth.

The notion of retirement is changing, too. According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), recent polls of Americans age 40 and over found two-thirds saying they would work well past 65. For some, financial pressures and a lack of retirement funding make this more of a necessity than a choice. "But even that reflects the perception that they will be healthy enough to work," a spokesman for the AARP said.

Many older people are choosing to embark, as Bloom did, on second careers in a field they love. Others are following a more gradual change in lifestyle.

"They're working part-time, maybe changing their position within their institution or work environment," Paris said. The era of the "golden handshake" as a final good-bye to the workplace is fading, she said.

There's a downside to everything, of course, even when it comes to extended health and longevity.

"I have patients in their 90s who are still very functional, but many say they don't really want to live much longer, because all of their friends are gone," Paris said. "And in some very sad cases -- not unheard of -- a 90-year-old parent may become the caregiver for a 70-year-old child with cancer or some other illness."

Older workers can also find it tough to compete in the job market, especially when young people fresh out of school will work for relatively little money. "As a society, we're not set up for them in a positive way," Paris said. "Despite everything, this is still a country that's youth-oriented, where young is beautiful and old is ugly. It's terrible."

Still, for a growing number of people, a 60th birthday marks a new beginning -- not the beginning of the end.

For Bloom -- who still spends most of her waking hours on the East River managing Barge Music -- it's all about giving back.

"Generosity is necessary," she said. "You have to give yourself to others, in whatever capacity you can."

More information

Find out more about healthy aging at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Olga Bloom, New York City; Barbara Paris, M.D., vice chairwoman, department of medicine and director of geriatrics, Maimonides Medical Center, New York City; Aug. 22, 28, 2006, Associated Press; American Association of Retired Persons
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