"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Living To 100 And Beyond

My mother was a few months shy of 100 when she died in fine fettle except for a body that had worn out.  She walked on the treadmill until she was 95, pushing herself to the limit of strength and endurance.  Yet when she was finally confined to a wheelchair, she said, “Pigs don’t fly”; and as long as he had strength in her arms she pushed herself around the house like a wheeled Madwoman of Chaillot.


She knew that it was better to have a sound mind in a non-working body than the other way around, and enjoyed hectoring my sister and warning me off my ways until her time was up. 

The National Institute on Aging estimates that the life expectancy of a baby born in 2080 will be 100, and although the curve of increasing age drops off around that time, few experts doubt that it will keep on increasing.  No one is predicting exactly what a 100-year old will actually look like at the close of the century, but more than likely she will have artificial everything – eyes, ears, nose, and throat – and a symbiotic interface with the computer which will enhance her intelligence a thousand-fold.  Her DNA will have been recombined to give her the skin of a twenty-something, resistance to disease, and the athletic potential of Michael Jordan.  In fact, she will be good for another hundred.

                          Chart by Gregg Easterbrook, Atlantic, 9.17.14 What Happens When We All Live To 100?

This is all well and good except for the cries of the Doomsayers who say that if one disrupts the natural culling process – death – Mother Earth will become totally unsustainable, and wars for territory and resources will continue.  Human beings will become like feral animals travelling in packs defending their trash can turf and raiding the stores of others.

These nay-sayers have watched The Road Warrior too many times, and reality will be much tamer.  As people live to 150 and beyond, there will be no need for any more people, and couples (if that innocent convention is still around) will remain childless.  Any vestigial longing for the innocence of children and the ideal two-parent family with a working father and stay-at-home mother can have it virtually.  In other words, we will all live across the far horizon and will simply create all the pleasures and accoutrements of life that we desire.

“It will be wrong to think of these Bi-Centurions as old”, said the noted futurist and social critic, Harbour Fellings. “Age itself will have no meaning in a hundred years.  We will all be permanently young”.

“A nightmare scenario” said Abraham Schectman, a rabbi, Old Testament scholar, and respected progressive.  “A world of perennial adolescents is not to be hoped for”.

True, but the human mind is very good at dilating or contracting time fitting expectations within it, and although the definition of ‘maturity’ will have to evolve, there is no reason to think that we all will still have emotional zits  “Yes”, said Schectman, “but what about happiness?  Can one keep up a lively conversation for 200 years?”

Not to worry. In the virtual world of the 22nd Century we will be able to keep up our end of the conversation with Louis XIV, Napoleon, or even Jesus Christ, roaming freely as we will throughout a personalized cyberspace.  “Ill-advised utopia”, said Schectman. “Adolescent video games. Where is God in this? People will stop looking for him.”

Schectman was right on this score, and Nietzsche’s bald statement that God is Dead will once and for all be true.

All this, of course, is neither here nor there for today’s aged, all of whom have to pay attention for the first time to the flickering light at the end of the tunnel and eternal extinction beyond. Everyone deals with aging in different ways.  I see bags of bones rattling away on the treadmill at the gym every day, chicken-breasted men pumping 10 lb. weights and checking themselves out in the mirror for muscle resolution and form, old women swimming so slowly that the pool doesn’t even register a ripple.  They all are convinced that their exercise will keep them going for many more years.

They are still nibbling carrot sticks for snacks, drinking skim milk and avoiding red meat and are trying to follow the diet of the Abbey of Montmorency, a Franciscan monastery high in the French Alps – gruel, millet seeds in broth, and unleavened bread. As Jason Karlawish notes in the New York Times (9.21.14):

Today, 3.6 percent of the population is over 80, and life is heavily prescribed not only with the behaviors we should avoid, but the medications we ought to take. More than half of adults age 65 and older are taking five or more prescription medications, over-the-counter medications or dietary supplements, many of them designed not to treat acute suffering, but instead, to reduce the chances of future suffering. Stroke, heart attacks, heart failure, kidney failure, hip fracture — the list is long, and with the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ plan to prevent Alzheimer's disease by 2025, it grows ever more ambitious.

This is folly, of course.  Whatever will kill them is already percolating within, and it will only be a matter of time – no matter what they do – that an artery will burst, cancer cells will grow exponentially, and the blood clot which has been waiting for the right moment to break off and lodge in the brain.  Longitudinal researchers have concluded that there is no evidence whatsoever that eating like a monk or pounding zinc daily will add even an hour to your life.

Leonard Cohen has the right idea.

This weekend, the singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen is celebrating his 80th birthday — with a cigarette. Last year he announced that he would resume smoking when he turned 80. “It’s the right age to recommence,” he explained.

Karlawish elaborates on Cohen’s philosophy:

When is it time to stop saving and spend some of our principal? If you thought you were going to die soon, you just might light up, as well as stop taking your daily aspirin, statin and blood pressure pill. You would spend more time and money on present pleasures, like a dinner out with friends, than on future anxieties.

In other words, alte kockers, it is time to slack off.  Forget about the gym, draw down on your savings and buy the Porsche you always wanted, vacation in Rimini, eat butter-rich Lyonnais cuisine, drink Scotch instead of an abstemious glass of Chardonnay, and smoke cigars.

Look at it this way: you rehabilitated your life and restored physical equilibrium after a dissolute and misspent youth, spent decades pruning your hedges and edging your lawn, and now it is time to reap the rewards of a life of such rectitude and common sense. Fuck it!

I recently told my friends that I was about to do a Leonard Cohen, so if they didn’t see me at the gym they would know why.  I warned them that my house was no longer a smoke-free environment; and asked that they please don’t call me to advise me of their allergies and food intolerances. 

“Don’t do it!”, they shouted in unison. “Think of your bones and your heart”.  Such admonitions fell on deaf ears.  “Numbers don’t lie”, I retorted, citing my irrefutably advanced age.  “My three score and ten are coming right up”.

My physician thinks I’m joking, and he can’t get his head around the fact that despite the fact that I have been an ideal patient, doing all the check-ups, keeping my vital functions in good working order, and following the Five Basic Food Groups, I now I want to give it all up. “Don’t do it”, he said.

Men are the same the world over, and even at 70 they are still checking out their abs and pecs, and sucking in the roll of flubber creeping over the belt.  You never know when the right woman’s head will turn.  So a lot of this geriatric pumping of iron and aerobics is done in pursuit of a vain and impossible male dream.  It is so internalized and an integral part of the psyche that flab and/or spindle legs are simply not a possibility.  In other words, men take care of themselves even though the scythe of the Grim Reaper is cutting grain close by.

Dr. Karlawish closes this way:

I don’t plan to celebrate my 80th birthday with a cigarette or a colonoscopy, and I don’t want my aging experience reduced to an online, actuarial accounting exercise. I recently gave a talk about Alzheimer’s disease to a community group. During the question and answer session, one man exclaimed, “Why doesn’t Medicare pay us all to have dinner and two glasses of wine once a week with friends?” What he was getting at is that we desire not simply to pursue life, but happiness, and that medicine is important, but it’s not the only means to this happiness.

The alte kocker in the audience, Karlawish, and Leonard Cohen all have the right idea.  Live it up.

I affirm, brethren, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. If from human motives I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what does it profit me? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die (1 Corinthians 15:32)

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