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If we're going to live longer, what should we hope old age looks like?
As research predicts different countries will see their average life span stretch farther, the United States and American adults ought to think about what old age ought to look like. And then do something about it. - photo by Lois M. Collins
Both my parents lived to age 80, a ripe old age that doesn't seem so impressive to me as I pull closer to it.

New mathematical models suggest most of the world's affluent countries will see longer average life spans in the future, although nearly everyone's pulling ahead of the United States. Of 35 countries included in the model by the researchers for the study just published in the journal Lancet, we Americans came in a not-so-spectacular 23rd for men and 27th for women when it comes to living long.

The researchers, led by the Imperial College London, used a combination of forecasts to determine projected life spans for children who will be born various places in the year 2030. Granted, it's hard to prove the future. But the results are not really surprising. The presumed longevity prize goes to women born that year in South Korea, because they're expected to have a 57 percent chance of living longer than 90 years, courtesy of healthy lifestyles, lean body mass and access to good care.

South Korean men are expected to live past 80, on average a distinction shared with several other countries, including our neighbors to the north in Canada.

Not us, though. Americans are not blowing past the competition, though we brag about our way of life, our excellent medicine, our can-do spirit. We can't in massive numbers seem to figure out how to eat better or more moderately. As Donald G. McNeil Jr. writes for a New York Times Global Health column, we have "an obesity epidemic, little focus on preventive care, relatively high mortality among babies of uninsured mothers and high male death rates from gunshot wounds and car accidents."

And I'd add that we apparently lack the will to address those mostly preventable things in a meaningful and game-changing fashion.

This week, I've been working on a project about old age and factors that help people flourish or lead them to founder. So I've thought quite a bit about how I'd like my own old age to be, should I get that far.

I've decided I'd like to be Sue Marquardt when I grow up. She just turned 88 and laughs when you ask her how she feels about it. "I never had a birthday I didn't think was just wonderful," she told me.

Are there things she cannot do? I recently asked her.

She paused for a second before telling me she can't change the lightbulbs in her kitchen, but that's a matter of being short, not old. On a more serious note, she says she has less energy than she used to, but it didn't stop her recently from shoveling her sidewalk, then doing her neighbor's because it was enjoyable. (Yeah, she said she felt it, later.) It doesn't keep her from taking exercise classes at a senior center; volunteering to help others, though she's pulled back recently a bit, and walking up and down the stairs she's glad are part of her home's design because they force her to keep moving.

Mostly, I love that she has continued to make friends through all the stages of her adulthood and then has been willing to nurture and invest in those relationships. New friendships and old friendships are a little different, she tells me, but both matter. Maybe that's a reflection of her years as a social worker; she worked many years with people who had diverse challenges within the juvenile court system, with people who had disabilities, and as a volunteer with folks who are homeless, to name a few.

I think what strikes me most and where we come up short on average as a nation when it comes to longevity is she's taking responsibility to help herself to flourish. She does healthy things, has a bright attitude and stays engaged.

It's something for the couch potato in me to ponder.