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Remembering the Leading Voice in Field of Aging

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

A pioneer in the field of aging has died – an exceptional visionary, scientist, humanist, scholar, agent of change and communicator.  This champion was Dr. Robert N. Butler, who died July 4 at age 83.  He worked up until three days before his death.

Dr. Butler was the leading voice on issues of longevity and served as the moral compass for aging. Here are some of his accomplishments:

  • In 1968, he recognized prejudice against older people and attributed this stereotype to a lack of knowledge and contact with older adults.  He wrote, “This deep and profound prejudice is found to some degree in all of us.”  It had no name; he coined the term “ageism.”
  • In 1975, Butler wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Why Survive? Being Old in America” (Harper & Row).  He described the downside of aging in our nation and then proceeded to write what we could do about it: “Human beings need the freedom to live with change, to invent and reinvent themselves a number of times through their lives.”
  • He made aging research and the specialty of geriatrics legitimate as founding director of the National Institute on Aging and founding chairman of the nation’s first department of geriatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Yet our problems are not yet solved.
  • In 2008, the American Geriatric Society reported that there were approximately 7,500 board certified geriatricians.  That’s one for every 2,500 Americans 75 and older and one for every 5,300 people 65 and over.    The discouraging news is that in 2007, only 92 medical doctors who graduated from U.S. medical schools entered geriatric fellowship programs.
  • Butler helped start, and led, the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, the Alzheimer’s Disease Association and the International Longevity Center.
  • He promoted aging before Congress and the United Nations and advocated to increase the dollars devoted to the basic biology of aging.  In an essay appearing in “Longevity Rules:  How to Age Well into the Future” (Eskaton, 2010), Butler wrote “The National Institutes of Health is funded at $28 billion in 2009, but less than 0.1 percent of that amount goes to understanding the biology of aging and how it predisposes us to a suite of costly diseases and disorders expressed at later ages.”
  • He called for Congress to invest $3 million annually, or about 1 percent of the 2005 Medicare budget of $309 billion.  He noted that if we could slow the aging process by seven years, we would cut in half the risks of death, frailty and disabilities at every age.
  • Butler co-authored the book “Sex After Sixty.” The original edition was published in 1976 when few, if any, acknowledged that sex after sixty even occurred.
  • And finally, Dr. Butler influenced journalists.  He established the Age Boom Academy, which provided education on key topics about aging for reporters.  The 11th  academy was held in June.

Butler insisted that society value older adults in its policies and programs.  He advocated that the extension of a healthy life creates wealth for individuals because they can accumulate more savings, remain productive and engaged in society, and can spark economic booms in industries such as financial services, travel and hospitality.

On a personal note:  In 1985, I had some work in Hawaii.  Having a few leisure hours I decided to go to the beach to read a small book I had recently purchased entitled “Productive Aging:  Enhancing Vitality in Later Life” (Springer, 1985).  Co-edited by Butler, it was a series of essays presented at a seminar in Salzburg, Austria.

I was “blown away” by Butler and his colleagues’ discussion of their research and perspectives on age and vitality.  That small book had a profound effect on my view of aging and has served as one of the underpinnings to my career.

The aging experience — as it affects our health, wealth, work, play, family and community lives — is all the better because of this pioneer’s vision and achievements.

Thank you Dr. Butler.

Copyright 2010 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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