Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel is popular for a lot of good reasons. He’s an recognized bioethicist and oncologist and has two very well known brothers, but another thing folks always manage to remember about him is that report he wrote in 2014: “Why I Hope to Die at 75.”
More than 1,000 individuals have sent him letters and emails–some declaring he’s crazy and ungrateful, others thanking him for voicing the same thoughts for which they’d been made fun of. One 75-year-old man who passed away in upstate New York requested that his mourners, rather than making a donation, sit down and read the piece.
Emanuel’s embrace of an early end–one that’s only a couple of years shy of the U.S. life expectancy of 78.8–is the exact opposite of how many folks in America feel about dying. In a survey from the Pew Research Center, nearly 70% of American adults stated they want to live to be up to 100 years old. But why?
“The quest to live forever, or to live for great expanses of time, has always been part of the human spirit,”
states Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics. Folks now seem to have particular reason to be optimistic: in the past century, science and medicine have lengthened life expectancy, and longevity researchers (as well as Silicon Valley types) are pushing for a life that lasts at least several decades more.
Needless to say, folks want to juice their life spans for reasons beyond their pioneering spirits.
“The thing that is most difficult and inscrutable to us as mortal beings is the fact of our own death,”
“We don’t understand it, we don’t get it, and as meaning-laden beings, we can’t fathom what it means to not exist.”
Quite simply, thinking about the infinite desert of death can trigger the worst kind of FOMO.
Simultaneously, the chances of living a long life that’s also a good, healthy one are slim. Almost all folks complete their most meaningful years prior to age 75, Emanuel writes in his essay, so living past that age is seldom as good as it might sound. Physical function crumbles for about half of Americans at around age 80, and aging makes all of us mentally sluggish and less creative. We might die later, but we don’t age slower.
Older folks realize this better than younger folks.
“What you see when you actually look at people at the end of life, to a large degree, is a sense of a life well lived and a time for that life to transition itself,” states Wolpe. “Younger people have a harder time with that, but older people don’t.”
When folks are asked how long they hope to live, on the other hand, attitude appears to make a greater difference than how old they are. A study of young and middle-aged individuals ages 18 to 64 discovered that 1 in 6 preferred to die prior to age 80. Those who did tended to hold more negative beliefs about what old age would be like. Nonetheless, the vast majority of folks surveyed wanted to live a good long life and had sunnier expectations for their own old age.
That’s why Emanuel isn’t attempting to persuade many folks to drop the quest for a longer life: proof, he understands, is no match for the human ego. “One of the things I don’t understand is why the Silicon Valley types want to live forever,” Emanuel states. “Obviously they believe the world can’t possibly survive without their existence, and so they think their immortality is so critical to the survival of the world.”There is, on the other hand, an ethical way to pursue life extension in a way that benefits everybody. “The proportion of the population that dies before 75, that’s the number we ought to be looking at and tracking,” Emanuel states. “We want to get everyone to 75.”
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