Robert Butler, Guru of Growing Old

Robert Butler, advocate of long, healthy living and father of the term ageism, dies at 83

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Ted Thai / Time & Life Pictures

Robert Butler, founder of the U.S. International Longevity Center

Robert Butler was only 83 when he died. That might seem like a respectable age — indeed, it exceeds the average life expectancy of a white American man by 6½ years — but Butler, the prominent gerontologist, psychiatrist and founder of the U.S. International Longevity Center (ILC), a New York City–based nonprofit dedicated to promoting healthy aging, was nowhere near ready to go. He was looking forward to working "indefinitely," he said in June, just a few weeks before his unexpected death from leukemia on July 4. He had recently accepted a professorship at Columbia University and was planning to bring the ILC to the campus with him. "It's kind of fun for me, because I went to Columbia College, Columbia Medical, School and now I wind up as a professor at Columbia," he said. We were sitting in his office at the ILC, where there was a photograph, taken just a few years earlier, of the wiry Butler posing in the plank position. "It might have been more fun if I'd balanced on one arm," he said.

For a serious man who left a substantial legacy, fun featured surprisingly often in his discourse. He campaigned vigorously against ageism — and in 1968 coined the term itself, which gained wider currency when a young Carl Bernstein quoted Butler on ageism on the front page of the Washington Post — but deployed a gentle wit to tackle the misconceptions and sheer ignorance fueling age prejudice. As he grew older, he became his own, and most eloquent, argument against ageism, visible proof that the elderly can be as productive, engaged, open to ideas and, yes, fun, as younger folk. "Strictly speaking, longevity is measured in numbers: it is the arithmetical accumulation of days, weeks, months and years that produces our chronological life," he wrote in his latest book, The Longevity Prescription, published only last month. "Yet aging — or, more accurately, its converse, staying young — is in no small measure a state of mind that defies measurement." Butler attributed his own apparent healthy aging at least in part to his optimistic outlook.

His output was prodigious. He was the first director of the National Institute on Aging, establishing Alzheimer's disease as a national research priority, and founded America's first department of geriatrics, at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. His books included the Pulitzer Prize–winning Why Survive? Being Old in America and, with his second wife Myrna I. Lewis, The New Love and Sex After 60. Lewis died in 2000, and Butler, though still mourning her, delightedly revealed in June that he had found love again "with a very special person."

Butler believed that by eating well, exercising and staying connected, we might extend our already increased longevity — on average we have gained about 30 years since the beginning of the 20th century — and, more important, should be able to look forward to enjoying good health for a larger proportion of our life spans. In that respect, at least, he proved a role model right until the end, as he was energetic and effective almost until the moment he died. He was unimpressed by the cult of youth. "Bob Hope said there are the three stages of life: youth, middle age and 'Now you look good,' " Butler told me. "I think that with all the plastic surgery and everything, the real truth is our appearance is not the essential element in our lives. And I think as people realize all these different presumed treatments are not really going to do the job, we may grow up."

Did he still have unfulfilled ambitions or dreams beyond his new post at Columbia? "Well, I don't think I'm going to go anywhere else," he said. "But I might."