Jimmy Carter's longevity a contrast with decrease in life expectancy in US

February 21, 2023
Headshot of former President Jimmy Carter. He's wearing a suit and tie and smiling.
Former President Jimmy Carter smiles during a visit to Austin, Texas, home of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum. Photo credit: LBJ Library

With 98-year-old Jimmy Carter in hospice for his final days, an expert on aging at the Medical University of South Carolina is reflecting on the former president’s remarkably long life at a time of decreasing life expectancy in the United States.

“I mean, it's just astounding to see the longevity of this particular generation,” said Heather Boger, Ph.D., education and outreach director of the MUSC Institute for Healthy Aging. “I think political party aside, you look at what Jimmy Carter was able to do, even after he didn't get reelected, what he went and made of his life is amazing.”

After losing in a landslide in 1980, the former president and peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, established the Carter Center and traveled the world to help with peace negotiations, monitor election security and work to get rid of infectious diseases. Carter won a Nobel Peace Prize and worked with Habitat for Humanity for decades.

Dr. Heather Boger

While few could match Carter’s achievements, Boger, a neuroscience professor and researcher, said there are plenty of other accomplished and long-lived people of his generation. “You look at Betty White; she died just shy of 100 last year. And we've had several live well into their nineties, including prominent actors and other public figures,” Boger said.

Those well-known names had access to excellent health care and nutrition because of their resources and statuses, of course, but there were also societal changes that helped the famous and not famous of Carter’s era. 

“For their generation, we had a lot of improvements that took place, such as medical advancements and establishment of sanitary systems. There isn’t as much disease and infection, which was running rampant before. Because of all these advancements, as well as people being more cognizant of taking care of themselves, we see more individuals living longer and healthier lives. Same can be said of Jimmy Carter’s wife, Rosalynn. She's 95 years old and by her husband’s, of 76 years, side.”

You might think this all adds up to long life expectancy for generations to come. But Boger fears that won’t be the case. “Life expectancy has declined in the last few years. And I'm actually expecting it to come down a bit more. We don't know yet the long-term effects COVID will have, not only from the infection perspective but also from the aspect of long-term social isolation on mental health. We already know there has been an increase in substance use disorders, which is a cause for concern,” she said.

And those aren’t the only issues. “A lot of gaming, a lot of unhealthy diet, a lot of over-consumption when they're not expending that energy. All of these factors are creating kind of the perfect storm that is going to have, I think, a significant impact long term. I think we're not doing enough to better preserve and nurture our young people to grow and have these longer, healthier lives.”

So what should our society be doing about it? Boger suggested looking at super-agers, such as Carter. “I think we need to be cognizant of the fact that this particular generation, those who have been able to live into their nineties and hundreds in the last decade, they had very active lifestyles. They were out and about physically being active. They weren't tied to devices like we are.”

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter sit with three children in Nigeria. 
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter visited children suffering from schistosomiasis, a disease caused by parasitic worms, during their 2007 trip to Nasarawa North, Nigeria. The Carter Center undertook one of the longest-running initiatives in providing health education and treatment for the preventable but devastating condition. Photo credit: The Carter Center

Boger said research shows that social and spiritual activity are important, too. “There was the Religious Orders Study done almost 20 years ago out of Rush University in Chicago really assessing this. I think it was roughly a thousand nuns, priests and other religious professionals that were followed, and findings suggested that their social and spiritual activities, as well as learning new skills, contributed to long active lifestyles with very little disease or comorbidities with many living into their hundreds.”

Boger said researchers have also studied the effect of outlook on longevity. “Optimism, your attitude, being able to laugh at things, not taking everything so seriously, is so important. Really focus on things you have control over or have the greatest impact to you but letting go of everything else. Also maintaining humor, a positive attitude, can contribute to a long life.”

Jimmy Carter appears to have incorporated all of the factors that can lead to a long life. He remained active for as long as possible; had a strong social network, with close family ties, and was openly spiritual, teaching a Sunday School class in his hometown and writing books about the importance of religious faith in his life. He recently credited that faith with making him an optimist. He’s a reminder that people have a lot to offer as they age, something, Boger believes, that as a society we need to do a better job of acknowledging.   

“We are very stereotypical of old people, unfortunately, in this nation – that once you're old, you don't know anything. You can't do anything. Instead, we need to say ‘You have made a significant contribution, and I want to do for you and help you as much as you've helped us.’ So bridging that gap and breaking those stereotypes, I think is quite significant,” Boger said. 

As Carter spends the end of his life at home, as a lot of us would like to do, Boger said his life should be an example to help others live long lives, too – including her. “I want to one day be able to say, ‘I've lived a happy, healthy and active 98 years on this Earth.’ It's what we should all strive for.”

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