As I came into Florida, home of the largest concentration of senior citizens in the United States, on my way to the oldest city in the United States, I was feeling a little creaky in my limbs. I had stayed up too late watching the game, it had been a long drive, and I was feeling sort of… well—old. But I was heading to the right place, the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park in St. Augustine, FL, where a sip from the legendary spring promised to wipe years from my physical age and make me as sprightly as a 17-year old. Such are promises.
The Fountain of Youth Archeological Park is a quaint, somewhat dated tourist attraction tucked away in a residential neighborhood about a mile north of St. Augustine’s old town. Its out-of-the-way location is a result of the fact that this is the actual spot where Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon came ashore in 1513, allegedly searching for a Fountain of Youth.
Ponce never found what he was looking for, but he must not have looked very hard because the proprietors of the park had no trouble at all locating it, about 150 yards from where Ponce stepped ashore and just inside the main entrance to the park.
The legendary fountain amounts to little more than a hole in the ground surrounded by life-sized dioramas of Spanish conquistadors and noble Indians. You may drink from it, if you like. The water tastes brassy and has absolutely no affect on your feeling of vitality. It does not add a spring to your step.
In spite of this shattering disillusionment, I had to smile at the notion of a fountain of youth in, of all places, Florida. There’s a certain irresistible irony behind the fact that the state with the highest population of senior citizens in the United States was discovered by an explorer searching for a fountain of youth.
Ponce de Leon reportedly came here in 1513 for the same reason millions of others have come after him, to look for eternal youth; and, while the explorer came up empty, his followers have been more fortunate. The truth is that many Floridians have discovered a fountain of youth. They just got to it by an entirely different method than the one sought by Ponce and his fellow explorers.
Geriatric Gym Rats
The World Gym in St. Augustine is a 20,000 square foot fitness facility, open 24 hours, 365 days a year. It’s one of 27 health clubs in St. Augustine, and one of more than 30,000 health clubs in the United States boasting more than 50 million members.
Today, one in every seven Americans is a health club member, and their numbers are growing. Health club membership is up nearly 11% in the last four years, and the fastest growing segment of health club membership is those 55 and older.
Enter any health club in Florida and you’ll be surprised at the number of elderly people working out there. “Elderly” is not the right word, however, because it connotes frailty, and these geriatric gym rats are anything but frail.
Scissoring away on elliptical machines or spotting each other on free weights, these pumped up fogies are as buff as many people half their ages. Heck, my 76-year old mother, a resident of Florida, who works out three days a week, on hearing that I was busting my butt pushing watts in a spin class casually mentioned that she had taken a break from spinning because the saddle hurt her rump. These are not your grandparents’ grandparents.
A Mean Down Dog
But exercise is only one piece of the fountain of youth puzzle. According to a survey in Consumer Reports, 37% of Americans describe their diet as “extremely” or “very healthy”. And while more than half of all Americans are overweight, awareness of what constitutes proper diet and nutrition is way up over what it was a generation ago. When you consider that the dangers of trans fats weren’t even discovered until the early 1990’s (when my mother was already 55 years old), you can see the advantage the next generation will have in starting out with the right information.
Knowledge is power, and in this case knowledge is longevity. When my mother was 23-years old, 66% of Americans were smokers. Today, when my daughter is 28, the number is 19.8%. In 1960 the word “yoga” was meaningless to my mother (she had never heard of it). Today, my daughter is a yoga instructor and my mother can whip off a mean “downward dog”.
Meditation, psychotherapy, massage, and martial arts were considered weird or exotic in the early 1960’s and disdained by most Americans. Now they are practiced regularly, and the results are in. Americans are healthier today than they’ve ever been, and that’s having an affect not only on the length of life but the quality of it. Quite literally, old people are getting younger.
How Long Will You Live?
Life expectancy in the state of Florida is now 79.70 years, ranked number 14 in the nation, a good showing considering that Florida is ranked number one for the number of senior citizens (aged 65 and older) at 17.3% of the population. But there’s a secret hidden inside these numbers.
Life expectancy in the US correlates strongly to education level. Recent studies have shown that life spans for the least educated Americans are actually contracting. For example, the life span for a white man without a high school diploma is now 67.5 years. Bad news, yes. But these unfortunate people are included in the data for the average life expectancy of the rest. So when you remove them from the equation, the average for the remainder goes up. For example, college educated men in the US have an average life expectancy of more than 80 years. College educated women live an average of 84 years.
Not only is lifespan increasing, but “active” lifespan is increasing as well. Today’s seniors are healthier, yes, but they are also more engaged in life, doing new things, experimenting, if not pushing the envelope, at least giving it a good nudging.
The Real Fountain of Youth
No longer content to sit aboard an air-conditioned bus watching the world go by, today’s seniors like to get out. The fastest growing segments of the travel industry are adventure travel and cultural tourism. Seniors are volunteering. They’re contributing time and energy. They’re taking on new challenges. The days of sitting in a recliner in front of the TV and drifting off to sleep are still years away for many 75-year olds.
All this communal activity has health benefits as well. Studies have shown a correlation between social engagement and longevity. In short, the longer people stay engaged, the longer they live. Combine that with good nutrition and regular exercise, and ongoing increases in life expectancy can be anticipated.
Looking forward, projected life expectancy for a 54-year old American male (myself) is 85 years old. For my 45-year old wife it’s 87. And for my 28-year old daughter it’s 91. If this trend continues, average Americans could live well into their 100’s. This is, indeed, a fountain of youth.
This Water Tastes Sweet
In 1512 when Ponce de Leon landed in Florida, establishing the first European settlement in what would eventually become the United States, life expectancy at birth was roughly 30 years. If you made it to your 21st birthday, your life expectancy ramped all the way up to 50, roughly half of what my daughter’s life expectancy is.
One can only speculate what old Ponce would’ve given for that sort of longevity. The idea that he would’ve remained physically active and socially engaged into his 80’s would certainly have set his head to spinning. The promise of such a thing might even have sent him on a wild goose chase looking for a legendary spring promising the elixir of eternal youth, a journey that would’ve fetched him up against the shore of what would one day become the state of Florida, home to the nation’s largest concentration of senior citizens, a cruel irony if it weren’t for the fact that these senior citizens have recently discovered the true source of the fountain of youth: diet, exercise, education and social engagement. And this water tastes sweet.
Check it out…
11 Magnolia Avenue,
St. Augustine, FL 32084
Mullen, Sean P. and Whaley, Diane. E. Age, Gender, and Fitness Club Membership: Factors Related to Initial Involvement and Sustained Participation, Department of Leadership, Foundations and Policy, University of Viriginia, Charlotte, [PDF], Academia.edu, August 2010, January 12, 2013.
Mahrous, Tamer. What Percentage of American’s Smoke Cigarettes, The Happy Hospitalist, 13 November 2009, 12 January, 2001.
Are We Fooling Ourselves, Most Americans Say Their Diet is Healthy, CR Poll Finds, Consumer Reports, January 2013, 12 January 2013.
USA Health Rankings, Measures of America 2011, USA Life Expectancy, Live Longer, Live Better, World Life Expectancy.com, June 2011, 12 January 2013.
Tavernise, Sabrina. Life Span Shrinks for Least-Educated Whites in USA, New York Times, 20 September 2012, 12 January 2013.
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Heyniger, Christina. Adventure Travel Industry Growth Statistics [PDF], 2004, 12 January 2013.
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Wikipedia contributors. “Life Expectancy.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 30 Sep. 2012. Web. 12 January 2013.
All images by Malcolm Logan, except Senior Citizen lifting weights by Cutcaster Images