Dying With Dignity: How Life Expectancy Isn’t What You Think It Is

It’s a good thing that “life expectancy” is on the up and up because it seems like the last thing anyone wants to do these days is die.i

Even if it’s hard for dying to be the first thing anyone wants to do, not every culture in every time and in every place has so categorically rejected that last breath the way Western Culture Society does today. Certainly, there have been many times, and there continue to be many places, where death and dying are embraced as the closing of the circle of life. Death, in such times, places, and cultures has a sense of honour, nobility, and even dignity about it. For without death, there can be no birth; and without birth, there can be no life. Hence the need for death. So even if we don’t want to die at this exact moment while reading this exact sentence, it’s a logical and biological necessity despite our most vehement and emotional rejection of its inevitable impact on our loved ones.ii

In Western Society, this is what it boils down to, we fear death on account of our attachment and sympathy with those nearest to us. We don’t want them to grieve. We don’t want them to hurt.iii

Western Society so fears this pain, as it does pain in all its forms, than it mentally cordons off anything and everything in that general direction, marking aging and all its representations, what with its declining physical vigour and potential for suffering of all descriptions,iv as if it were a leper of the lowest caste. In its grey-haired place we put youth on a wholly lofty and entirely undeserved pedestal, praising it for a quality it didn’t earn, can’t keep, and scarcely even wants.v

This has consequences, namely the up-regulating of neoteny and the down-regulating wisdom, much to the detriment of sanity and reason. So when Ezekiel J. Emanuel comes along and writes 5,000 words about how he wants to die at 75, everyone loses their mind!vi But is he really so crazy? I mean, what if 75 years is plenty?

Let’s take a closer look together:

Here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world.vii It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.

Living too long is not only a loss for the individual and their family but, at least under the current arrangements in the Western World, society as a whole. Our refusal to recognise death and our worming around the issue, no matter the cost, has pretty devastating consequences. So should a society really have the responsibility to support and care for 75+ year-olds whose families can’t be bothered? It’s one thing if a few families pool resources to put their parents and grandparents in a group home instead of keeping them in the attic but it’s another matter altogether if that group home is funded with tax dollars.

In the current situation, the unproductive, uncreative, immobile, isolated and entirely dependent elderly are imposing a significant burden on those in their prime. It’s not that it isn’t possible that some of these old folks might be able to contribute something, it’s just that our current flavour of socialism, both tragically and unsurprisingly, doesn’t provide them that avenue.

If this dependent and despondent fate is the objective, and if it weren’t it wouldn’t be so, why do we still think that moar life expectancy is better?

In the early part of the 20th century, life expectancy increased as vaccines, antibiotics, and better medical care saved more children from premature death and effectively treated infections.viii Once cured, people who had been sick largely returned to their normal, healthy lives without residual disabilities. Since 1960, however, increases in longevity have been achieved mainly by extending the lives of people over 60. Rather than saving more young people, we are stretching out old age.

Why do we keep stretching out old age? For one, to keep the democratic mythology alive. For another, Health Sickness Care is an enormous business and a huge bezzle. Insurance companies, doctors, equipment suppliers, etc. all have much to gain from keeping half-dead grandpas alive just a few… more… decades. So the increases in disability, which once would’ve spelled the merciful End of Days, now spell only “$$$.”

It is true that compared with their counterparts 50 years ago, seniors today are less disabled and more mobile. But over recent decades, increases in longevity seem to have been accompanied by increases in disability—not decreases… In 1998, about 28 percent of American men 80 and older had a functional limitation; by 2006, that figure was nearly 42 percent. And for women the result was even worse: more than half of women 80 and older had a functional limitation.

So 50%+ of women over 80 years old have a functional limitation? And this is some 25% higher than in men?? Sexism!! This is unfair I tell you!!! Why won’t anyone do anything about this??!1

So American immortalsix may live longer than their parents, but they are likely to be more incapacitated. Does that sound very desirable? Not to me.

Of course, no one wants to be a decrepit burden on society, but you won’t be a burden right? Oh no, not you. Couldn’t happen. No way. You won’t smother the next generation with your self-importance. That’s other people.

Living parents also occupy the role of head of the family. They make it hard for grown children to become the patriarch or matriarch. When parents routinely live to 95, children must caretake into their own retirement. That doesn’t leave them much time on their own—and it is all old age. When parents live to 75, children have had the joys of a rich relationship with their parents, but also have enough time for their own lives, out of their parents’ shadows.

As someone with two vigorous, energetic, and accomplished parents who aren’t done yet, I can attest to the challenge of seizing the throne when the King and Queen are in such fine form. My parents are still productive, capable, intelligent, physically able, and a light in my life, but there’s still no way around it: the shadow is the shadow.x

But there is something even more important than parental shadowing: memories. How do we want to be remembered by our children and grandchildren? We wish our children to remember us in our prime. Active, vigorous, engaged, animated, astute, enthusiastic, funny, warm, loving. Not stooped and sluggish, forgetful and repetitive, constantly asking “What did she say?”

The impact of memories is worth considering. Tellus of Athens is remembered for dying a noble death in battle whereas Muhammad Ali will be remembered for taking too many hits to the head. A long life is most definitely not a noble life any more than a long potato is a noble potato. Chasing life expectancy isn’t what you think it is.

Japan has the third-highest life expectancy, at 84.4 years (behind Monaco and Macau), while the United States is a disappointing No. 42, at 79.5 years. But we should not care about catching up with—or measure ourselves against—Japan. Once a country has a life expectancy past 75 for both men and women, this measure should be ignored.

Like any emergent statistic that becomes a goal unto itself, “life expectancy” has been badly twisted to construct a narrative of progress.xi This narrative prizes science, suppresses religion, and muddies reflective thinking.

Many of us have suppressed, actively or passively, thinking about God, heaven and hell, and whether we return to the worms. We are agnostics or atheists, or just don’t think about whether there is a God and why she should care at all about mere mortals. We also avoid constantly thinking about the purpose of our lives and the mark we will leave.

For those of us not working from causes, a purpose is essential. “A long life” is only a purpose because considerations of its societal impact are downplayed. Of course, this doesn’t prevent the impact from coming to bear.

Seventy-five years is all I want to live. I want to celebrate my life while I am still in my prime. My daughters and dear friends will continue to try to convince me that I am wrong and can live a valuable life much longer. And I retain the right to change my mind and offer a vigorous and reasoned defense of living as long as possible. That, after all, would mean still being creative after 75.

Emanuel sounds pretty reasonable, doesn’t he? He neatly pokes holes in a number of our delusions about death and its forebear, aging, and leaves us with is an appreciation for a full life, one overflowing with productive thinking, not merely a long life.

My Osler-inspiredxii philosophy is this: At 75 and beyond, I will need a good reason to even visit the doctor and take any medical test or treatment, no matter how routine and painless. And that good reason is not “It will prolong your life.”

Ultimately, and I’m sure Emanuel would agree, life has far more to do with quality than quantity. It has more to do with those conversations relished, books devoured, wine drunk, food feasted upon, lands explored, respect earned, power seized, and the people to share it all with.

That’s a life well lived.

That’s dignity.


___ ___ ___

  1. “Life expectancy” is, of course, a fucktarded statistic no more useful and no less indoctrinating than “inflation.” As MP so aptly puts it:

    Statistics is perhaps the hardest thing for the monkey brain to grok. Harder than crypto, tho the fonts of difficulty be well related. Incidentally, one of the major pillars of the fallacious theory of “progress” is exactly this. Back in 1700, a bunch of retarded kids that should never have lived died before being 21. The current day progressive averages all that out and comes up with o wow, “life expectancy has doubled”!!!1 In fact, expectancy of quality of life has more than halved whereas actual life duration expectancy hasn’t much changed, except if you’re a retard, which change is both immoral and unwelcome. Otherwise, Seneca lived 94 years just as well as Buffett or w/e.

  2. What impact could death even have on us personally? That is, what entity might we be able to attribute agency to post mortem that we might identify as “self”? Even if the mind lives on, it has no corpus on which to enact its will, and therefore no agency.
  3. This is why we joke about death:

    Jill: Death isn’t funny.
    Michael: Then why are there so many jokes about death? Jill, with us – us humans – death is so sad that we must laugh at it. All those religions – they contradict each other on every other point but every one of them is filled with ways to help people be brave enough to laugh even though they know they are dying.

    This is also why we don’t joke about rape and slavery. Well, some of us don’t…

  4. Burying friends and family, beating cancer once or twice, wishing your children would visit you more often, etc.
  5. Youth quite naturally wants wealth and power, that domain of the aged and the fortunate, while tending to neglect wisdom, that which would save them from conflating popularity with true influence. Youth doesn’t really give a shit about being flexible, strong, and always hard. It wants what it can’t have, namely, respect.
  6. From later in the same article by Emanuel:

    Even if we aren’t demented, our mental functioning deteriorates as we grow older. Age-associated declines in mental-processing speed, working and long-term memory, and problem-solving are well established. It is not just mental slowing. We literally lose our creativity.[…] The fact is that by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us. […] Creativity rises rapidly as a career commences, peaks about 20 years into the career, at about age 40 or 45, and then enters a slow, age-related decline. There are some, but not huge, variations among disciplines.

    That’s it really. It comes and then it goes.

  7. This points to MP’s point in footnote i (above) and to the lunacy of including death in childbirth in “life expectancy” statistics.
  8. Emanuel’s term for Americans “obsessed with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible.”
  9. Thankfully, the shadow is largely physical and quite geographically isolated, leaving the entire digital domain with its flexible borders up for grabs. Is it any wonder I’m using this blog and Bitcoin as my platform for individuation?
  10. The uselessness of a measure as a target is formally known as Goodhart’s Law.
  11. Sir William Osler published the medical textbook which served to inspire Emanuel, The Principles and Practice of Medicine, in 1892.

11 thoughts on “Dying With Dignity: How Life Expectancy Isn’t What You Think It Is

  1. Saifedean says:

    You take as a given that old age will mean a deterioration in health and becoming a liability to others. I’d like to bring Art de Vany to your attention. He’s an economist, but for thirty years he’s studied food and exercise and come up with some very interesting ideas which you can find in his book The Evolutionary Diet. He argues that there are essentially two drivers of aging: lean muscle mass wasting, and excessive inflammation. Muscle wasting happens if you do not move your body and exercise enough, and if you don’t eat enough animal protein. Inflammation happens from many bad things, but most important is consumption of foods that raise your blood sugar level, necessitating insulin release. Repeated sugar intake will basically destroy the body over time. It leads to obesity, diabetes, alzheimer’s, cancer, MS, and various other illnesses, it slowly wastes the body.

    So, control these two processes and your body can continue to function normally into old age. Art de Vany is 77 and in better shape than you and me and most 20 year olds. He is in roughly the same shape than when he was 20. Imagine living to your old age in full health and the appeal increases.

    • Pete D. says:

      You take as a given that old age will mean a deterioration in health and becoming a liability to others.

      Not at all. If one is 75+ and is still a net-positive for society in the sense that he contributes more than he takes, then what could possibly be wrong with that? Even if he’s net-negative on society but financially independent and physically independent enough to care for himself, or if he has family willing to take care of him, then wonderful, we’re good to go.

      The issue is with those who are a net-burden on society, aren’t independent, don’t have family support, and, particularly if given the choice, wouldn’t choose to go on. These lost souls are heavy as fuck for the productive class; a productive class who is busy pushing themselves as far as they can while also lifting their offspring through to maturity so that there’s something of a legacy on this planet. How many logs must mule carry up a mountain?

      I’d like to bring Art de Vany to your attention.

      He’s an impressive figure, no doubt. Strong, vital, and independent. Truly a model of a “senior” citizen!

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