NYT Columnist David Brooks goes a long way around the mulberry bush to express a simple idea. He writes…
Years ago, people hoped that science could delay the onset of [sickness]. We would live longer, healthier lives and then die quickly.
This is not happening.
Most of us will still suffer from chronic diseases for years near the end of life, and then die slowly.
S. Jay Olshansky, one of the leading experts on aging, argues that life expectancy is now leveling off. “We have arrived at a moment,” Callahan and Nuland conclude, “where we are making little headway in defeating various kinds of diseases. Instead, our main achievements today consist of devising ways to marginally extend the lives of the very sick.”
Others disagree with this pessimistic view of medical progress. But that phrase, “marginally extend the lives of the very sick,” should ring in the ears. Many of our budget problems spring from our quest to do that.
The false even-handedness of “Others disagree with this pessimistic view of medical progress” is nails on the chalk board for me. The fact is that “life extension technology” has not stopped or reversed aging for anyone, ever. In fact American longevity is going down, not up. Facts are pesky little devils.
The idea Brooks is trying to get his hands on is simple and, in the world of aging, well known. it is called “the compression of morbidity.” It works like this: If we cannot extend the human lifespan beyond what is encoded into our DNA then our fall back goal should be to shorten that period of sickness and frailty that so often attends the period just before death. Sign me up for that.
To his credit, Brooks closes his piece with links to the following essays. They are… “Born Toward Dying,” by Richard John Neuhaus, “L’Chaim and Its Limits: Why Not Immortality?” by Leon Kass and “Thinking About Aging,” by Gilbert Meilaender.
Judith Helburn says
Brook’s article was thoughtful. As is his recent book, the Social Animal. The [long] article by Kass cited at the end is one of the best I have read on mortality.