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Ken Dychtwald, PhD – Healthy Longevity at the Tipping Point: A Five-Part Solution

Ken Dychtwald
Age Wave | Ken Dychtwald

The world has reached a critical juncture, facing a pressing issue that demands immediate attention: the escalating challenge of unhealthy aging. As our population ages at an unprecedented rate, societies around the globe find themselves at a tipping point. The implications of this growing problem encompass not only social and economic aspects but also profound healthcare, marketing, financial, and workforce considerations.

Having immersed himself in these dynamic issues for nearly fifty years, Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D., has emerged as North America’s foremost visionary and original thinker regarding the social, economic, healthcare, marketing, financial, and workforce implications of the “age wave”—a term he coined in the 1980s.

In this exclusive article for Insights Care Magazine, Ken Dychtwald shares his provocative views about how to heal our ailing healthcare system. Let’s delve into it to know more!

Birth of a Visionary

Ken is a multidimensional personality. In addition to being the Founder and CEO of Age Wave, he is a psychologist, gerontologist, documentary filmmaker, and best-selling author of 19 books. Some of his noteworthy works include ‘What Retirees Want: A Holistic View of Life’s Third Age,’ ‘Radical Curiosity: My Life on the Age Wave’ and bestseller, ‘Age Wave: The Challenges and Opportunities of an Aging America.‘ With an impressive client list that encompasses more than half the Fortune 500, Ken has established himself as one of the most sought-after experts in the fields of aging and longevity and their related domains.

Journey of Revolutionizing Healthcare

In the late 1960s, as mass media and mind-expanding education began, Ken’s journey in transforming healthcare also began with the anti-authoritarian attitudes of his generation—the Baby Boomers who were being taught to question authority. What emerged was an anti- authoritarian mood; a rebellion against militarism, materialism, gas-guzzling cars, the sexual mores of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and even medicine. Women (led in the late 1960s by the Boston Women’s Health Collective) and then men, began to believe that people should have knowledge about and control of their own bodies.

Hoping to make a positive impact on this, a group of people—including Gay Luce Ph.D., Eugenia Gerrard M.A., Ken Pelletier Ph.D., M.D., Len Duhl M.D., and Ken—came together in the early 1970s in Berkeley, California and formed a study council to create a new mashup of mind/body medicine. They called this holistic health. Ken was 24, completing his doctorate on the ‘Psychology of the Body‘ and writing his first book ‘Bodymind.’ Around the same time, a young California physician named John Travis, who trained at Tufts and Johns Hopkins, found himself inspired by psychologist Abraham Maslow’s innovative suggestion that one didn’t have to be mentally ill to focus on being more mentally well. Travis applied that notion to medicine and popularized the word wellness.

In subsequent years, a flow of inventive and high-minded people worked to pursue a new health paradigm. Dr. Dean Ornish followed up on Pritikin’s diet with a more comprehensive program of nutrition, yoga, meditation and supportive group co-counseling sessions. Dr. Andy Weil conjured integrative medicine, Dr. Deepak Chopra attempted to blend an east/west approach and Mark Hyman was crafting functional medicine.

Now, in the far more entrepreneurial, capitalistic era—driven by the aging of the Boomers—there is a new spectrum of skin preparations, hormone therapies, vitamins, bio-hacks, prepared meals, pillows, mantras, brain hacks, self-help apps, and exercise technology, along with books and seminars.

Ken says, “Over the past 50 years, I have heard and seen a thousand different experts make the case that they’ve got the secret sauce or treatment that can cure almost everything.

The “age wave” has emerged as a powerful force shaping society, the economy, healthcare, and various other sectors around the globe. As the Founder and CEO of Age Wave, Ken has dedicated his career to understanding and addressing the challenges and opportunities presented by the aging population.

Coined by Ken in the 1980s, the term, “age wave”, refers to the unprecedented demographic shift caused by the aging of the Baby Boomer generation and its subsequent impact on different aspects of life. In this context, Ken stands as a visionary and original thinker, offering profound insights into the social, economic, healthcare, marketing, financial, and workforce implications of the “age wave”.

Health, Science and Sociology: An Evolving Relationship

Over the years, healthcare has made significant strides, leading to a decline to the acute infectious diseases and a rise in life expectancy. Until relatively recently, most people died swiftly and relatively young of infectious diseases, accidents, or in childbirth. Twentieth-century breakthroughs in healthcare aided in eliminating many of those threats. The death rate from tuberculosis—one of the leading causes of premature death a century ago—has been reduced by more than 99 percent. Similarly, once-fatal illnesses such as measles, streptococcal infections, pneumonia, influenza, whooping cough, syphilis, typhoid, and diphtheria, are no longer major epidemic diseases.

When the first U.S. Census was taken in 1790, half the population was under the age of 16 and less than two percent were 65 and older. As a result, society was not concerned with the health needs of its aging citizens. During the past century, advances in public health and sanitation, medical diagnostics, pharmaceuticals, surgical techniques, and nutrition have eliminated many acute problems or infectious diseases that once caused premature death.

However, the focus has been on prolonging lifespan rather than healthspan. Ken emphasizes the need to align health span with lifespan, as the later years should not be dominated by illness and suffering. He shares, “In the 20th century, average life expectancy increased by 29 years, but for many older adults, the later years are a time of illness, pain, disability and suffering. Today, the average American will spend 12.4 years (16 percent of their lifespan) living with a disability or disease.

The relatively mediocre rating is not because of inadequate funding. Each year, the U.S. devotes an increasing percentage of its resources to health care. In 1960, healthcare expenditures were five percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). By 2020, healthcare spending in the U.S. was estimated at 20 percent of the GDP.

As the Baby Boomers age and the demographic landscape changes, the intersection of health, science and sociology becomes increasingly crucial in addressing the challenges posed by unhealthy aging.

At the Tipping Point: Addressing Unhealthy Aging

Ken firmly believes that the world has reached a tipping point, necessitating bold action to address unhealthy aging. In his book ‘Radical Curiosity: My Life on the Age Wave‘, he presents a five-part solution to create healthy longevity for everyone, ensuring a better quality of life in the later years.

Ken says, “We need to create a new healthy longevity vision and infrastructure. Below is my recommended five-part solution for creating a scientific grand concerto to create healthy longevity for everyone.

Solution 1: Gerontology and Geriatrics Expertise

To cater to the aging population’s unique needs, Ken advocates for recruiting and training healthcare professionals with expertise in gerontology and geriatrics. Despite the demographic shift, the number of geriatric specialists remains significantly low. By prioritizing and incentivizing these fields, society can better care for its older adults, reducing costs and improving overall health outcomes.

Ken shares, “Medicare is the largest funder of medical residency training in the U.S. Yet only 315 medical residents (out of around 148,000 medical residencies that Medicare helped to support) specialized in geriatrics during the academic year 2021-2022. This statistic is insane – almost criminal.

He also emphasizes improvement in care, “If we required physicians, nurses and other health professionals to attain basic geriatric competencies in order to be eligible for reimbursement, geriatric skills would swiftly improve, mistakes and do-overs would shrink; and we’d have better-cared-for elders at a far lower cost.

Solution 2: Harnessing the Power of Medicine, Technology and AI

Ken says, “Since there might be thousands of biomarkers to measure and thousands of ways to improve one’s health, how can every individual doctor know which approach or combination of approaches will get the best results? It’s not humanly impossible.

Exponential advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning offer a promising path to precision medicine. By leveraging AI and extensive data on individual biomarkers and outcomes research, a personalized approach to health management can be developed, improving the overall effectiveness of medical treatments and interventions.

He shares, “Utilizing AI and possibly ChatGPT, it will become possible to make sense of thousands—even millions—of individual biomarkers and then, like a kind of Health Waze, provide direction to every individual so that they can live better longer.

Solution 3: Prioritizing Prevention and Wellness

One seldom-discussed problem with our healthcare system is that many men and women take poor care of themselves on the way to maturity and old age. Unhealthy behaviors are not unique to the elderly, but the older we get, the more problematic they are. Lack of proper self-care hurts our elders, their families and the economy.

Talking about the facts, Ken shares, “According to the CDC, only 15 percent of men and 11 percent of women age 65 and over meet the physical activity guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities, approximately two-thirds of those age 65 and older are overweight or obese and more than eight percent of the elderly still smoke.

Prevention and wellness play a pivotal role in promoting healthy longevity. Ken emphasizes the need to shift the focus from reactive healthcare to proactive measures that prevent diseases and promote well-being. This includes implementing policies and programs that prioritize preventive screenings, lifestyle modifications and health education from an early age. Regular exercise, proper nutrition, maintaining a healthy body weight, not smoking and limiting alcohol intake can improve lifespan by an estimated 12-14 years.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can reduce heart disease, hypertension, non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, colon cancer and osteoporotic fractures—the most common diseases of aging. Healthy behaviors have also been shown to increase bone mass, mineral content and lean muscle mass; improve metabolic rate, balance, coordination, strength, elimination efficiency, and heart/stroke volume fostering a sense of well-being.

By investing in prevention and wellness, society can reduce the burden of chronic diseases and enhance the overall health of individuals as they age.

Solution 4: Redesigning Living Environments and Communities

Creating age-friendly living environments and communities is essential to support healthy aging. Ken advocates for reimagining housing, transportation and urban planning to cater to the needs of older adults. This includes designing accessible and inclusive housing options, promoting walkability, ensuring transportation options for older adults and fostering intergenerational social connections and community engagement. By creating environments that enable independence, social interaction and access to necessary services, older adults can maintain their well-being and lead fulfilling lives.

Solution 5: Develop a Humane Approach to the End of Life

Until the 20th century, death was no more strongly associated with old age than with any other time of life. In fact, one of the riskiest periods was infancy and early childhood. Dying was an integral part of everyday experience. Adults and children alike observed it regularly-animals killed for food and family members dying not only of old age but also of disease and accidents. Death, like birth, mostly occurred at home. The deathbed scene was a communal experience shared by family and friends.

When the end of life is near, older adults should be helped to whatever extent possible to have a “good” death. This includes enacting advance directives to ensure their final wishes are respected, having access to spiritual and emotional support, taking steps to minimize discomfort or suffering and dying with dignity. Hospitals, health systems and home care programs can help with this by offering education for older adults and their families on advance directives, palliative and hospice care programs and education for caregivers on end-of-life options.

Palliative care needs to be the emphasis for the dying patient—relieving symptoms, controlling pain and providing emotional and spiritual support for the patient and their family. Such treatment requires relatively little apparatus and technology and is far less costly than the procedures currently in place in most hospitals. Ken says, “If we allowed elderly patients the dignity of dying a ‘good’ and natural death at home supported by family and capable hospice and palliative professionals, we could save both human suffering and tens of billions of dollars each year.

Embracing a Brighter Future

Ken’s five-part solution presents a comprehensive framework for addressing the challenges of unhealthy aging and creating a future of healthy longevity. By incorporating gerontology expertise, harnessing the power of medicine and technology, prioritizing prevention and wellness, redesigning living environments, rethinking work and retirement, society can embrace the “age wave” as an opportunity for growth, innovation and improved well-being for people of all ages. With concerted efforts and visionary thinking, we can build a future where individuals can age healthily, maintain independence and contribute to the betterment of society.



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