If, like me, you’re on the wrong side of sixty, you’ve probably noticed those increasingly frequent and sinister “senior moments.” What was I looking for when I came into the kitchen? Did I already take out the trash? What’s old what’s-his-name’s name again?
One possible reaction to aging is resignation: You’re just past your expiration date. You may have heard that centuries ago the average life expectancy was only around 40 years. So you might think that modern medicine and nutrition are keeping us going past our evolutionary limit. No wonder the machine starts to break down.
In fact, recent research suggests a very different picture. The shorter average life expectancy of the past mainly reflects the fact that many more children died young. If you made it past childhood, however, you might well live into your 60s or beyond. In today’s hunter-gatherer cultures, whose way of life is closer to that of our prehistoric ancestors, it’s fairly common for people to live into their 70s. That is in striking contrast to our closest primate relatives, chimpanzees, who very rarely live past their 50s.
There seem to be uniquely human genetic adaptations that keep us going into old age and help to guard against cognitive decline. This suggests that the later decades of our lives are there for a reason. Human beings are uniquely cultural animals; we crucially depend on the discoveries of earlier generations. And older people are well suited to passing on their accumulated knowledge and wisdom to the next generation.
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