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PURETICS...

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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Longevity is not a zero-sum game

Extending your own life expectancy is the most selfish motive imaginable for doing anything. Do it, by all means....

On an airplane seven or eight years ago, I turned and discovered Robert McNamara in the next seat. He is ninety-one now, so he must have been more than eighty at the time. I asked him why he was going to Denver. He said that he was meeting a female friend at the airport and heading for Aspen. It seems that when his wife died he had commissioned in her memory one of a chain of primitive huts on a trail between Aspen and Vail. Now he was going to ski the trail and stay in the huts with his lady. He told me this, then beamed, like my friend in the pool.


Well, life is unfair, but let’s not get carried away. Longevity is not a zero-sum game. A longer life for Robert McNamara doesn’t mean a shorter life for you or me or the average citizen of Vietnam. He’s done that damage, and at his age he won’t be doing more. In fact, he seems to have been spending the gift of a long life trying to make amends—mainly, as he described his recent agenda to me, by flying around the world to conferences where the world’s suffering is deplored. Nevertheless.

Still, to get to that view of things, I had to suppress an irrational feeling that McNamara had won big in a game he shouldn’t have been entitled to play. Yes, life is unfair, and never more so than in how much of itself it gives to different people. Deaths of young adults are mourned with special pain, and the very, very old are celebrated. But any age between about sixty and ninety doesn’t rate a second glance as you flip through the obituaries. Anywhere in there is a normal life span, even though the ninety-year-old got fifty per cent more life.

What’s more, of all the gifts that life and luck can bestow—money, good looks, love, power—longevity is the one that people seem least reluctant to brag about. In fact, they routinely claim it as some sort of virtue—as if living to ninety were primarily the result of hard work or prayer, rather than good genes and never getting run over by a truck. Maybe the possibility that the truck is on your agenda for later this morning makes the bragging acceptable. The longevity game is one that really isn’t over till it’s over.

Between what your parents gave you to start with—genetically or culturally or financially—and pure luck, you play a small role in determining how long you live. And even if you add a few years through your own initiative, by doing all the right things in terms of diet, exercise, sleep, vitamins, and so on, why is that to your moral credit? Extending your own life expectancy is the most selfish motive imaginable for doing anything. Do it, by all means. I do. But for heaven’s sake don’t take a bow and expect applause.

This is the game that really counts. Perhaps you imagine that, as eternity approaches, the petty ambitions and rivalries of this life melt away. Perhaps they do. That doesn’t mean that the competition is over. It means that the biggest competition of all is about to start. Do you doubt it? Ask yourself: what do you have now, and what do you covet, that you would not gladly trade for, say, five extra years? These would be good years, of cross-country skiing between fashionable Colorado resorts, or at least years when you could still walk and think and read and drive. You would still be a player in whatever game you spent your life playing: still invited to faraway conferences about other people’s problems, if you ever were; still baking your famous chocolate-chip banana bread for the family if your life followed a less McNamarish course. What would you trade for that? Or, rather, what wouldn’t you trade? O.K., you’d give up years for the health and happiness of your children. What else? Peace in the Middle East? A solution to global warming? A cure for AIDS? These negotiations are secret, mind you. No one will know if you selfishly choose a few extra years for yourself over an extra million or two for Planet Earth. We’ll posit that you’re a good person, though, and that to spare the earth from a couple of the Four Horsemen you’d accept a shorter span for yourself.

Few people ever have the opportunity to make an explicit choice between years of life and some noble cause. Among those who do are soldiers. People who volunteer for military service or act bravely in battle consciously risk giving up most of their Biblically allotted threescore and ten, and for some this choice is both wise and generous beyond belief. Unfortunately, every war has at least two sides, and at most one of them is the good side. The math suggests that, in the course of history, most of these sacrifices probably were a mistake. Robert McNamara’s years equal those of four soldiers who died in Vietnam.

Anyway, back to you. Children, country, future of the world are off the table. And, yes, these are the important things. But there are other things that make life sweet. The baby-boom generation in America is thought to have found something approaching genuine happiness in material possessions. A popular bumper sticker back in the nineteen-eighties read, “He Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins.” This was thought to be a brilliant encapsulation of the baby-boom generation’s shallowness, greed, excessive competitiveness, and love of possessions. And it may well be all of these things. It’s also fundamentally wrong. Is there anything in the Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue—or even listed on Realtor.com—for which you would give up five years? Of course not. That sports car may be to die for, but in fact you wouldn’t. What good are the toys if you’re dead? “He Who Dies Last”—he’s the one who wins.

Boomers realize this, of course. Don’t forget: back in the Dark Ages, we invented jogging. (Our knees may now regret it.) Competitive consumerism wasn’t invented by boomers or yuppies. However, it is deeply rooted in yuppie culture. I win if my house is bigger than yours, or if my cell phone is smaller than yours. Or if my laptop computer is thinner or my hiking boots are thicker. And yet all this is meaningless, isn’t it? And I don’t mean that in a spiritual way. Be as greedy and self-centered as you want. The only competition that matters, in the end, is about life itself. And the standard is clear: “Mine is longer than yours.”

The oldest boomers, born in the late nineteen-forties, are just turning sixty, and the last boomer game is about to start—the game of competitive longevity. So how are you doing? Let’s say you’re sixty. To begin with, you’re still alive, which gives you a leg up. Or are the real winners in our youth-obsessed generation the boomers who died young, like John Belushi? Well, perhaps, but you’ve missed that boat. There may be glamour in dying in your early twenties. There is no glamour in dying in your late fifties.

In 2004, the most recent year for which there are final figures, life expectancy at birth in the United States was 77.8 years. That’s 75.2 years for males and 80.4 years for females. But if you’ve made it to sixty your life expectancy is 82.5 years: 80.8 for men and eighty-four for women. (In Katha Pollitt’s recent book of essays, “Learning to Drive,” there is a vicious one called “After the Men Are Dead.”)

Of course, these are only averages. Factors that you control, such as diet, exercise, and smoking, can affect your score. So can factors that are beyond your control but are already known or knowable, such as your family health history. What most affects your own outcome, though, is the simple fact that averages are only averages. Think of this as good news: for everyone who dies in his or her forties, there must be three or four who make it into their eighties in order for the averages to work out.

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