Q&A: Aging Expert Alexis Abramson

Ahead of her appearance at Hebrew SeniorLife's EngAGE conference, she tells us about the biggest aging-related issues of today.

Alexis Abramson

Dr. Abramson. Photo provided to bostonmagazine.com

Someone in the United States turns 50 every eight seconds; someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s approximately every 70 seconds. In short, aging is a topic we, as a country, can’t afford to ignore.

Dr. Alexis Abramson, a leading expert in aging and the Baby Boomer generation, is tackling that challenge head-on. Along with other big names like Atul Gawande and Arianna Huffington, Abramson will appear Tuesday at Hebrew SeniorLife’s EngAGE conference, a multidisciplinary event focused on aging issues.

We caught up with Abramson before the conference to discuss aging, perceptions of the elderly, and what you should be doing to prepare.

Where does your interest in gerontology come from?

I had an incredible relationship with my grandparents, and I just realized that we were sort of putting mature adults out to pasture. Mature adults were not really looked at as respectfully as they should be. I have always felt that we really need to start to listen and understand more clearly what their wants and needs and desires are and incorporate them back into society, as opposed to that old tradition where when someone retires, they’re almost marginalized.

How can we start to do that?

I think we’ve begun the transition, and I’m really grateful for that. We’ve never had the kind of trajectory that we’re having right now, in terms of the number of Boomers that are turning 50, the number of people that are turning 65. Programs like [EngAGE] are important because they are educating all of us about ideas we can put in place to help create new perceptions of aging, but also [help] the people that are currently aging, especially our older old.

What do you see as the greatest issue facing the aging population?

The greatest advantage and opportunity, as well as greatest challenge, is this whole idea around longevity. Members of the Boomer population are going to experience what I like to refer to as their 30 bonus years. The average life expectancy went from 47 in the 1900s to 77 and beyond today. We’re living this much longer life, so we need to make sure that all the things we’re putting into place will be suitable offerings for this group that’s going to demand a lot more. I think one of the challenges is, are we ready for our own longevity? Are we ready from a financial standpoint? If retirement calculators only go out to 90 and we’re seeing our parents and grandparents live beyond that, are we planning appropriately? How about care-giving? What does socialization feel like, and how will our communities be able to care for all these people? That’s what keeps me up at night—are we ready for the aging of America?

What about aging-related diseases like Alzheimer’s—how can people prepare?

From a social standpoint, I feel very strongly that we need to have more conversations around things like this. Instead of talking about it, we’re more in denial, and we sort of hope for the best. If we don’t [discuss it] it will come upon us and we won’t have any planning. We don’t talk about death and dying, we don’t talk about illness, we don’t have the hard conversations that we need to have. If we don’t come up with some sort of solution for this challenge, we’re going to have potentially more than 16 million people with Alzheimer’s in 2020 in the States—we only have 5 million right now. Can you imagine the magnitude?

What’s your best advice for people as they age?

I always suggest to people, “Be the CEO of your own aging.” Really come up with a plan. Who would you like to be around you? What does your aging look like? Create a business plan, almost. Take it seriously. Do you want to live with your family if you’re in a compromising situation, or do you want to live in a nursing home? Make sure that you organize from a financial standpoint. We would never let our children just go out there and try to figure out what’s going on—why are we doing that for ourselves as we get older? We have to take control of our own aging.