Misconceptions about aging and older adults must be overcome so that individuals and society can realize the benefits of longer life spans and increased quality of life, Laura L. Carstensen, Ph.D., told those attending the Oct. 19 National Academy of Medicine annual meeting, where the topic of the day was “Aging: Complexities, Opportunities and Impacts on Society.”

“We must not waste this gift of long life,” she said. Carstensen, the Fairleigh S. Dickinson Jr. Professor in Public Policy, professor of psychology and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity at Stanford University in California, was the keynote speaker.

The general public may equate aging with illness, Carstensen said, “but older people report better emotional experience in day-to-day life. They are better able to regulate strong emotion. They are better able to solve emotionally charged problems, and they are slower to anger, more likely to forgive, more appreciative, more grateful.”

The country’s infrastructure must take advantage of this reality, she said. “We must not fail to tap a growing resource. It may be the only natural resource in the world that is growing: older people who are knowledgeable, healthy and emotionally stable and even-handed.”

Older adults have much to contribute to society, and they benefit as well, Carstensen said. “As research accumulates, it…appears that work, paid or unpaid, may improve cognitive functioning,” she said.

Another aspect of supporting the aging process is supporting medical research, Carstensen added. “We need to invest in finding cures and in finding ways to prevent [diseases] from developing. We need a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. We need to find ways to prevent osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, stroke [and] cardiovascular disease,” she said. “Age is a risk factor for most diseases. In a society that is aging, we need to find ways to address them.”

In addition to disease-related research, studies on subjects such as nutrition, exercise and smoking cessation can inform healthful habits at a younger age, to help society as the population ages, Carstensen said. “When we think about health in an era of longevity, it will not be about older people alone,” she said. “We need to get younger people engaged in activities and exercise with habits that begin early in life and continue all the way through.”

Society needs to set high expectations to reap maximum benefits related to the aging process and older adults, Carstensen said. Failure, she added, “will be assuming that aging is synonymous with decline. It will be a failure to recognize that pediatrics is as important as geriatrics in long-lived societies. It will be a failure to make physical exercise something that begins early and lasts all the way through. It will be a failure to tap the resource that older people represent. It will be a failure to recognize that a growing population of even-handed, emotionally stable people can address some of the greatest problems in the world today.

“We can make aging societies the best thing that ever happened to children and families,” she concluded.

July 1, the National Academy of Medicine assumed membership, honorific and other functions formerly administered by the Institute of Medicine. The IOM continues its consensus study and convening activities as a program unit of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.