Americans are living longer than ever before — about 30 years longer, on average, than a century ago — according to leading scholars who participated in the Century Summit, a four-day virtual conference convened in December by The Longevity Project and the Stanford Center on Longevity. The conference looked at everything from business innovations to caregiving to new ways for Americans to work and thrive throughout the increasingly long lives they're now living.
"Longevity is ... among the greatest opportunities we have had in human history," Psychologist Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, said. "Essentially, our ancestors handed us 30 extra years of life with no strings attached. It's up to us to make sure that we use these years to improve quality of life, not just in old age but at every stage in life."
Researcher Susan Golden said adults 50 and older now represent 35% of the nation's population and account for more than 50% of consumer spending and 83% of household wealth.
That huge market of older adults is beginning to attract "A-level entrepreneurs, who could be doing anything," Robert Chess, a biotech entrepreneur and Stanford business lecturer, said.
"They're coming in and reinventing areas that have traditionally been the purview of nonprofits and mom-and-pop businesses," Chess said, citing a startup called Wider Circle focused on alleviating senior loneliness and another called Honor that specializes in the field of home healthcare.
Even iconic global brands with youthful images have embraced the aging customer base, making "stealth" changes to retain this group, he said.
"You think of BMW, the 'ultimate driving machine,' with 30- and 40-year-old marketing and demographics," Chess said. But the average age of a new BMW owner is actually 56.
The Bavarian auto giant redesigned its dashboard and controls with more color contrast, larger type and bigger knobs, without ever announcing it, Chess said.
"It works really well for older people, but they don't quite know why. It works well for the younger people. But (BMW) is still marketing the same way they always have. It's essentially stealth design," he said.
Similarly, Nike — finding it was losing customers as they got into their 50s, 60s and 70s — introduced the CruzrOne athletic shoe.
"The marketing is 'athlete forever,' so they're not marketing it toward older people, they're marketing it for cross-generation," Chess said.
"But it has features such as a flexible back heel so it's easier to get in and out of the shoe. It has more stability control; it has more padding because as your feet get older the padding gets thinner — all things that are just good for everybody."
Chess said the CruzrOne was inspired by 82-year-old Nike founder Phil Knight, who walks eight miles a day.
Despite its youthful image, eyewear maker Warby Parker has found that its fastest-growing market segment is people 60 and above, Chess said. "So, they provide all the features needed (by older customers, such as progressive lenses) but still keep their young market. What you're seeing is companies that have young brands but are going where the growth is.
"They're doing it by providing product features that work for everybody but are needed by the older people."
In seeking to lead longer and healthier lives, Americans should consider emulating the nation's Latino population, David Hayes-Bautista, a professor of medicine and director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, told participants at the conference.
Latinos in the United States enjoy longer life expectancies and lower death rates from heart disease, cancer and other causes than non-Hispanic whites, said Hayes-Bautista, citing data from the National Center for Health Statistics.
Hayes-Bautista, who's spent 40 years studying the health and culture of Latinos in the United States, said the group can be considered a model for longer, engaged lives. Latinos in the U.S. enjoy nearly 3 1/2 years of longer life expectancy — 81.8 years — than non-Hispanic whites, at 78.5 years, he said.
"That's surprising because they have less income as a population, less education, lower access to care, but they manage to live 3 1/2 years longer," he said.
Similarly, U.S. Latinos have 30% lower age-adjusted death rates from several leading causes of death, including heart disease and cancer, he added.
The reasons, in part, have to do with "some behaviors, which are counter-intuitive," Hayes-Bautista said. Latinos are about 30% less likely to use tobacco and alcohol and 40% less likely to use drugs, he said.
"This surprises a lot of people because the stereotype is the drunken Mexican, etc., etc.," he said. "And part of this may be due to some dedication to work."
Latinos consistently have a higher rate of labor force participation and a higher rate of household formation than non-Latinos, he said, citing data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
"We don't have to re-invent anything," Hayes-Bautista said. "If we want to increase life expectancy, lower mortality, keep people engaged and have big families, actually Latinos have been doing that ... We just need to understand and appreciate what's under our nose right here in this country."
For more information or recordings of the Century Summit go to longevity.stanford.edu/century-summit.