Hugh Downs, whose professional career has spanned 60 years, is one of the most familiar figures in U.S. television.
He was born in 1921, and began his broadcast career at age 18 as a radio announcer in Lima, Ohio. He was the announcer on Caesar’s Hour, he helped launch The Tonight Show with Jack Paar in 1957, was the host of the game show Concentration, of the Today Show, and he co-hosted 20/20 for more than 20 years.
But that hardly scratches the surface. The numerous documentaries he has reported and anchored have won him many Emmys, most pertinently for this blog, in 1985, Growing Old in America. You can read more about Mr. Downs’ long and distinguished career here.
He is also a pilot, a published composer, a horseback rider, a well-known adventurer and the author of more than a dozen books - three of them on aging. His retirement, if you can call it that, has not slowed down Mr. Downs at all.
He lectures at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University, speaks frequently throughout the country on the subject of successful aging, is chair of the Board of Governors of the National Space Society, chair emeritus of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, chairs the Research and Education Committee of the Geriatrics Advisory Council of the Mount Sinai Medical Center and was recently appointed a commissioner of the Arizona Film Commission.
With his wife, Ruth, Mr. Downs lives in Paradise Valley, Arizona. They have two children, two grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and a third on the way.
Mr. Downs graciously agreed to inaugurate a new Time Goes By series, The TGB Interview, which we conducted by email.
RONNI BENNETT: When you were young, what did you think getting old would be like? How is it different from what you expected?
HUGH DOWNS: When I was young, I thought getting old would entail a lot of sorrow that I could no longer do things I thought were important to do. This proved to be false simply because of a change in what I thought was important to do.
Granted, there are things I don’t do because I couldn’t if I wanted to. But would you mourn, at age 15, the loss of something you could do at age two and can no longer do? When you are two you can sit down backward and stiff-legged on a cement floor. Anybody 15 or older would be sent to the hospital with back injuries if he tried this. Wouldn’t it be neurotic to moan about the loss of this ability?
Do I wish I could play football? Or abuse my system as I did in my early twenties with bad diet, smoking and drinking too much? No.
RB: Were you really born on Valentine’s Day?
HD: Yes. I'm told that the doctor present at my delivery urged my parents to name me Valentine and call me Val. I was so grateful to my parents for not doing this that I forgave them for giving me a first name that I thought they had made up. When I was in the second grade, another kid named Hugh enrolled and I thought, "Isn't it strange that they made up the same weird name for him?"
RB: How are you most different from your youthful self?
HD: I am most different from my youthful days in being much more in control of my comfort and having a vastly increased capacity for the appreciation of everything. Esthetic experiences are much deeper, the intensity of interest in interesting things.
The ability to love has increased beyond anything I could have imagined. When you are young and in love, you love only up to the capacity you have. My wife Ruth said it best in an analogy she used when we did a joint lecture on marital longevity at Arizona State University: “Young love is like a blowtorch - very hot and dangerous if mishandled. You can be burned badly by it. Mature love is like a giant bonfire at which you can warm your life.”
RB: What’s the biggest surprise – positive or negative – you’ve encountered about getting older?
HD: The biggest surprise I found on getting to my mid-eighties is why I still feel like I am thirty-five. (Except for the fact that I am happier than when I was thirty-five.) This requires a good bit of luck, as well as careful habits. But if you run afoul of injury or disease, then it is not aging we are talking about.
I am fond of saying, “There is nothing wrong – ever - about getting older or being older. There is always something wrong with being injured or impaired or alone, sick, broke, or discriminated against.”
RB: What, if anything, do you miss about your youth?
HD: The things about my youth worth having, I still have. The other things - the uncertainties (the shrouded future at your arm), the fact you have aspirations instead of accomplishments, the failures in love, career, and imagination - these I can do without, even though they were part of the seasoning of youth.
RB: What of your beliefs have changed that you can attribute to getting older – and wiser?
HD: In my youth, I believed things about history – partly because I was implicitly taught this in school - that I had occasion to revise. Example: I believed that any people under a cruel monarch or a tyrannical dictator would simply rise up, mount a revolution, and establish a beautiful democracy.
Then I came to realize that it almost never happens that way. Only once, that I know of: the British colonists who defeated the forces of King George III and set up the United States did something virtually unique. In most other cases, the overthrow of an oppressive government results in the establishment of an equally tyrannical one. (The Russian czars, the ayatollahs of Iran, etc.)
RB: Do you have any age-related diseases or conditions? If so, how does it affect your daily life?
HD: “Age-related conditions” is a term widely used, even in the medical community, and I find it flawed. True, there are disorders and diseases one is more likely to run into in advanced age than in youth, but there is a fallacy in coupling impairment and decrepitude with aging.
I have come to believe that there is no disease or disorder that is age-specific. For instance: if all old people were deaf, or all deaf people were old, then you would have a disorder that is a true concomitant of age. But this is not the case. And it is not the case with anything, including Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. (I have interviewed more than half a dozen centenarians, whose minds are undamaged by injury or disease, and there are recorded cases of Jacob-Creutzfeld and Alzheimer’s in people in their forties.)
In answer to your question, I notice in recent years some changes that might be considered age-related. I have lost some muscle mass (don’t do as many pushups as in earlier years) and hearing tests show a decline in high frequencies. Sometimes if I’m not looking at someone’s lips I don’t distinguish between “fun” and “sun,” but I doubt I’ll need a hearing aid before I’m ninety.
And none of the 100-year-olds I interviewed were physically robust even though their mental condition was good. So you don’t plan to start a baseball career at age 45.
RB: Compare an average day today to an average day before you retired from 20/20 in 1999.
HD: The average day I had when I was under contract to a network (say for 20/20) was a lot more sensibly structured. I worked mostly on broadcast projects, had more time to take in movies and TV shows, and to read books at a faster rate than now.
Now, I have more irons in the fire than I probably should. Between university lectures and other speeches, keeping up my email correspondence, broadcast guest shots, board meetings (chair of the Board of Governors of the National Space Society, chair emeritus of U.S. Fund for UNICEF, being a commissioner on the Arizona Film Commission) trying to shoe-horn in some creative writing, discharging duties of being a founding member of MAN (Men’s Anti-violence Network), and trying to get enough sleep and exercise, my average day today is a lot more filled than I anticipated when I retired. (This is badly undercutting my goal of becoming the Playboy of the Western World.)
RB:You have written at least three books on aging and you serve on the boards of several important organizations that deal with aging. How did this become an issue you wanted to explore so deeply?
HD: I first become interested in aging when, at age 30, I was asked to host a prime time special on NBC Television. It was called How Long Can You Live, and was a geriatric medical special on the subject of human longevity - not life expectancy.
This so fascinated me that it planted a lifelong interest in the subject of aging. It was the beginning of my learning experience
RB: In a remarkable book titled What Are Old People For?, Dr. Michael H. Thomas, a geriatrician, writes: “Old age may be a time of loss and decline, but it is not only that. There is a countervailing and equally significant increase in the power of adaption.” What adaptions have you made to getting older?
HD: Dr. Thomas is a geriatrician worthy of the name. Since you ask about me and what adaptations I may have made to getting older, I must say that decline has not really bothered me. We decline, in a sense, from the moment we are conceived. (See answer to the first question.)
I do not ride motorcycles any more not because I can’t, but because I can easily trade this for activities I enjoy more. I don’t pursue girls anymore, because even if I could strive for “conquests” of this sort now, I have a girl and for 61 years that has been more important to me than the uncertainties and the vanity of the chase. So I haven’t really given up anything important. The opposite is the case.
RB: Dr. Thomas, in refuting youth as the gold standard of life, also writes: “In fact, old age is different from adulthood, just as adulthood is different from childhood. Age changes us…could it be that an older person is something other than an adult in decline?” Can you, having recently turned 84, speak to some differences you’ve noticed between adulthood and old age?
HD: Now, at age 84, I realize that adulthood starts out as a mass of responsibilities and challenges, and one can be zestful to face these and address them energetically. But unless I had had the misfortune to fail at everything I was striving for, there is no excuse for me now to insist on prolonging the muscular pursuits of earlier adulthood.
I am still a member of the “young old” and will, in five years, join the “old old.” The differences in these ages have to include concern that I will encounter some injury or disorder that could impinge on the quality of my life. But again, we would then be talking about something other than aging.
RB: It is common for old people to say they don’t feel old and I think what they usually mean is they are not much different on the inside from when they were younger. Do you find that to be so?