The straight dope on death
I came across an interesting statistic the other day. It was derived from actuarial data and stated that all things being equal, a 30-year old man has an 84 percent chance of living to be 65. A 60-year old man, on the other hand, has a 94 percent chance of making it to the same age.
At first blush, those odds seemed counter-intuitive because we normally associate youth with positive survival outcomes and aging with negative ones. Upon further review, however, the numbers make perfect sense.
The assertion is not that 60 year olds are generally healthier than men half their age. Nor is it that older men are more likely to live five additional years than are their younger counterparts. Rather, it says that a man at 60 has better chance of living five more years than a man at 30 has of living 35 more years.
Framed in that context, the probability is easy to understand. For one thing, people tend to engage in less risky behavior as they grow older, thus reducing their chances of dying by trauma, which is the leading cause of death among the young. The odds of checking out in a bungee-jumping accident are zero if you don’t bungee-jump.
And men in the older cohort have already dodged the bullet of premature death from early-onset heart disease and many of the more aggressive forms of cancer. Not surprisingly, it turns out the best way to extend your life span is to avoid death.
Life expectancy for a white male in the United States is currently 75.4 years. But that figure includes males who die in infancy as well as those who live to be 100. Consequently, the odds shift over time. The life expectancy for a white male at 65, for instance, improves to 81.4 years — just above the overall average for white females, the longest lived U.S. demographic.
Females in general tend to outlive men. Women who reach 65 can expect to live an additional 19.9 years. Distaff citizens who reach their 85th birthday have a reasonable chance to celebrate their 90th.
This tautological tendency of the elderly to live a long time is a mixed blessing. It’s good news for seniors anxious to enjoy their golden years, bad news for accountants at the Social Security Administration, and a windfall from heaven for the pharmaceutical industry.
If you watch televised news, you’ve probably noticed that prescription drugs are now advertised as consumer goods. Apparently, Madison Avenue has deduced that older viewers are more likely to tune in to newscasts and are obviously more prone to suffer from the physical indignities of aging.
The typical ad spot geared to this group is an exercise in schizophrenia because the visuals and their accompanying text seem to arrive from alternate universes. The former are intended to sell a product while the latter is designed to avoid a lawsuit.
The commercials invariably feature attractive seniors — usually couples — engaged in some variant of oldster fun. As the actors explore a botanical garden, hold hands on the beach, ride bicycles or become improbably frisky while folding laundry, the sound tract begins:
If you suffer from (flatulence, hysteria, acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, high cholesterol, erectile dysfunction, incontinence — pick one or insert your favorite disorder here) XYZate could be just what the doctor ordered. Just one pill hourly can allow you to enjoy life again.
Rare but serious side effects include lycanthropy, convulsions, instant death, homicidal impulses, liver failure and warts. If you fall into a coma or begin speaking in tongues, stop taking XYZate and notify your physician immediately.
Don’t let your age-related infirmity keep you from feeling like you’re 20. Ask your doctor if XYZate is right for you…
As a result of this nonsense, we tend to wind up over-medicated and neurotically obsessed not only with disease, but with the risk factors for possibly developing one.
Americans spend more money on health care in general, and prescription drugs in particular, that any other nation.; Yet, when countries are ranked by life expectancy, we come in a middling 38th — just below Denmark and Cuba, two nations afflicted with the dreaded specter of socialized medicine. Apparently, longevity is not solely determined by the number of exotic pills you take.
Boomers are in the process of inflating the senior citizenry to record numbers. Partial credit for that phenomenon rightly goes to the pharmaceutical industry, which has developed medicines to conquer many of the more pernicious illnesses that have historically beset humankind. The advent of antibiotics, for instance, dramatically improved prospects for living to old age.
But despite glossy advertizing to the contrary, your local drugstore is not a fountain of youth and worrying about your health won’t add one day to your life. Taking solace in the fact that life expectancy tends to increase with age, the time would seem to be ripe to kick back, relax and try to enjoy what’s left of the ride.
After all, for surviving members of the Pepsi Generation, it’s already too late to die young.