Date: May 1st, 2001
At 74, Dr. Robert Butler doesn't think about retiring. He's too busy mobilizing humanity for the Longevity Revolution.
Robert Butler, M.D., didn't set out to become an internationally recognized leader in gerontology and geriatrics. He originally wanted to be a hematologist. But over the years, the ageist attitudes he encountered in both medical school and throughout American society assaulted his sensibilities, sparked an interest in geriatrics, and drew him into uncharted territory — namely, a career in the field of aging.
Throughout his professional life, Dr. Butler has been a pioneer, creating his own jobs and organizations, if necessary, in pursuit of his goal to help reorient society's thinking about aging. Here are just some of his accomplishments to date:
- founding director of the National Institute on Aging (1975-1982);
- founder of the first department of geriatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine (1982), where he served as Chairman and Brookdale Professor of Geriatrics until 1995;
- Pulitzer Prize winner for his book, Why Survive? Being Old in America (1976); and
- founder and current president and CEO of the International Longevity Center (ILC), the first private, nonprofit, international center devoted solely to addressing the unprecedented increase in longevity and population aging.
Dr. Butler's interest in aging is rooted in his medical school days. He said he was disturbed when he heard very distinguished professors refer to older people as "crocks" — boring patients with big, thick medical charts. "I had grown up with my grandparents and it seemed quite disrespectful to me," said Dr. Butler.
"In medical school, every effort was made to introduce us to middle-aged and younger patients, but older patients were considered to be beyond help — in other words, not teaching material," he added. "But when I started my internship, I was struck by the number of older patients. I became vaguely aware that people were living longer."
What also got Dr. Butler hooked on the field of aging was a landmark study, published in 1963, which studied healthy, community-dwelling older people for the first time. Prior studies focused primarily on diseased and institutionalized older people. The research found that many of the symptoms previously attributed to aging were not due to aging at all, but to disease. The tendency before was to think about aging as a disease instead of a normal stage of life in which disease can occur. Aging may be a risk factor for diseases such as Alzheimer's, diabetes and osteoporosis, but it is not the cause. This represented a breakthrough in our thinking about aging, according to Dr. Butler.
Dr. Butler's current professional goals are to:
- Make headway in alleviating the geriatrician shortage. Unfortunately, even today, medical students still are not being adequately trained to treat older people. Only three of America's 145 medical schools currently have geriatric departments, and most schools require only a two-week rotation in geriatric medicine, if that. The ILC called the issue "a national crisis" and published a policy report that details the problem and makes recommendations for the immediate implementation of a geriatrics faculty training and development initiative.
- Get the ILC firmly established worldwide. The organization currently has centers in Paris, Tokyo, London and Santo Domingo. Over the next 10 years, Dr. Butler would like to see 15 centers working as a world society to confront the dramatic change in population longevity.
"Soon, 80 percent of people beyond age 60 will be living in the developing world, and it is critical to reduce disease, disability and poverty in these areas," explains Dr. Butler. "We would be kidding ourselves if we kept talking about globalization in the selling of our products and services when more than one billion people live on only $1 a day. The world also is smaller from a pathological point of view. It would take about 30 hours to get an infection from one part of the globe to another on an airplane."
- Complete his current book, The Longevity Revolution.
- Convince Baby Boomers that they need to be interested and involved in health promotion and disease prevention NOW, before it's too late.
Dr. Butler is an inspiration in so many ways. At 74, he works 60+ hours a week, exercises daily, enjoys an active family life and still sees patients who refuse to give him up. He has achieved what most people only dream about — the balanced life. "I love what I'm doing and I just can't imagine being retired," he said. "There's too much to do."
For more information about Dr. Butler's efforts at the ILC, please visit www.ilcusa.org.