Kenneth Ferraro understands why someone might assume he studies old people. The Distinguished Professor of Sociology serves as director of the Center on Aging and the Life Course, after all.

While the mistake is understandable, Ferraro wants people to pay more attention to the “and the life course” portion of the center’s title. Living conditions in the years leading up to old age often impact the quality of our golden years, and Ferraro’s research also accounts for that important period.

“Many of us underestimate the influence of the early years on adult health, especially when we are teenagers and think of ourselves as invulnerable,” Ferraro said. “Most people become more aware of their health limitations and risks during middle age, and many embark on efforts to promote health. If people stay in the mindset that they are invulnerable, growing older may not be a pretty scene for them.”

This is an area of special concern today as gerontologists observe current trends and attempt to assess future conditions.

In general, American life expectancy continues to rise thanks to medical and technological advancements and improved awareness of risky life choices. This of course seems like a positive development, but are these people enjoying additional good years or are they simply living longer with chronic conditions?

“Most people want quality of life, and they interpret it as including some degree of independence. We dislike the thought of being dependent in later life, but health problems may trigger a loss of personal control,” Ferraro said. “During middle and later life, people think more about how to preserve health in the face of mounting challenges, but the nation’s health could improve greatly by more attention to health at younger ages. Small changes during early adulthood and middle age may yield meaningful health dividends during later life.”

Although there are sure to be further innovations that lengthen and optimize life, there are also obvious factors that will continue to make a difference. Diet. Exercise. Managing stress. Lifestyle choices like smoking or substance abuse.

In fact, Ferraro notes that gerontologists are concerned that women’s life expectancy is not rising at the same rate as men’s, possibly because of women’s increased labor force participation in recent decades while still juggling domestic and social responsibilities outside the office.

And of additional concern: Life expectancy is not growing at all in certain geographic areas.

“Some U.S. counties and states are seeing tremendous gains in life expectancy, but it is not happening in other counties,” Ferraro said. “There has actually been a decline in life expectancy in some rural counties of Kentucky and West Virginia, which is likely related to tobacco culture: tobacco farms, high rates of smoking, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, consumption of trans fats. There are different cultural approaches to health, and some of the widely accepted lifestyles come back to haunt people during their middle and later years.”

Ferraro’s life-course perspective has produced a wealth of innovative research — including his recent book The Gerontological Imagination: An Integrative Paradigm of Aging (Oxford University Press, 2018) — that established him as a leader in his field. It also led to his selection for the 2018 Lu Ann Aday Award, Purdue’s most prestigious honor in the humanities and social sciences.

With Purdue’s 150th anniversary Ideas Festival set to launch this fall, the timing will be perfect for Ferraro to deliver the Lu Ann Aday Distinguished Lecture on Oct. 29.

One of the Ideas Festival’s four themes is “Giant Leaps in Health, Longevity, and Quality of Life,” which aligns with Ferraro’s area of study. Along with the Center on Aging and the Life Course’s September symposium, “Technological Innovations for Optimal Aging,” Ferraro’s lecture will open the conversation that will take place across campus over the next year about longevity.

The themes might range from technical — advancements in technology that help detect, prevent, and treat diseases or robotics that assist seniors with daily tasks — to medical — ideas for preventing and treating cancer or eliminating neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s — to fanciful — considering how surgery will change in the future or asking whether humans could someday live to 150 years old.

There is ample reason to approach these subjects with optimism. Ferraro points out that there has been a substantial decline in the prevalence of cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, and prostate cancer, with evidence showing people are better able to manage these conditions and enjoy a higher quality of life while dealing with them.

However, not all of the news is good. Incidences of liver and brain cancer are rising at an alarming rate, and diabetes is on the rise, as well.

These contradictions will be aspects of the discussion that Ferraro hopes will occur at Purdue over the next year as the campus contemplates how to optimize the quality of life for all with the goal of adding high-quality years to everyone’s life expectancies.

“The spatial variability in health and life expectancy also reveals one of the key ideas of gerontology: The aging process is modifiable,” Ferraro said. “The link between social life and health confirms that we can either slow or accelerate biological aging.

“Our goal is to identify the social origins of health in order to optimize the aging experience for all.”

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