Harvard Gazette (November 18, 2010): Probing the Golden Years

Publication Date: 
Thu, 11/18/2010

In the basement of Harvard Law School's Hemenway Gymnasium, a battle of ages is being waged.

Twice a week, the thwack of a squash ball against the court's walls signals a match between Goelet Professor of French History Patrice Higonnet, 72, and opponents such as History Professor Dan Smail, 30 years his junior. Higonnet, tall and trim in his white uniform, holds his own, though he confesses that Smail gets the better of him more often than not. Still, at an age when people in past generations would have been content to just watch such a contest, Higonnet is competitive and sometimes, victorious.

Improvements in medical science and in understanding healthy lifestyles have led to longer lives for many people like Higonnet, who continue to enjoy not only more days, but healthier and more active ones.

While there have always been people with remarkable longevity and health, today the ranks of the healthy old, as well as the very old, are expanding at the fastest rate in history. The U.S. government expects a relative explosion of people reaching the milestone age of 100 in the coming decades. Last year, there were 7,490 centenarians in this country. By midcentury, that number is expected to top 600,000.

Such a large demographic trend is bound to have sweeping societal effects, and Harvard researchers are in the forefront of such studies, in medicine, public health, business, education, and the law.