Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Let's talk about longevity

The Australian Treasurer, Joe Hockey, recently noted that people born today might live to be 150 years old. He was trying to use humans' expected greater longevity to justify making budget cuts and require people to pay more of their own health costs. I don't really want to discuss politics or economics here. I just want to say ...

... why the hell would anyone want to live to be one hundred and fifty, or even one hundred?


An exit strategy is required!

When I was born in 1967 the Earth's population was about 3.5 billion. Now it is more than 7 billion. In addition to humans churning out more and more humans, life expectancy is increasing. Why? Because infant mortality has reduced, many infectious and parasitic diseases are now less common, nutrition has improved (junk food diets notwithstanding) and clean drinking water is more widely (though alas, not universally) available. Oh, and medical technology keeps finding new ways to keep people alive. (Dare I say, whether or not they want to remain alive?)

So, I've been thinking about mortality lately. As you do. It sometimes feels like modern society (Western modern society, at least) tries to deny death. Whereas once death was commonplace  sad, but not unexpected  there's now an assumption that we should all live (and work) for a very long time, that we should go to extraordinary lengths to cheat death, and that there's something wrong with us if we don't want immortality.

A recent piece of research (Hutchins et al., 2015) asked people whether they would risk living a shorter life rather than taking a daily pill to prevent cardiovascular disease. Apparently about 30% of survey respondents said they wouldn't take the pill. The authors of the study surmised that taking a daily pill would be perceived as an annoyance. Many of the media outlets that covered the story sounded incredulous and rather judgemental. They couldn't understand why anyone would forgo hypothetical years of life just to avoid taking a daily pill. I wanted to turn the research question upside down. Maybe the respondents who declined to take the daily pill were happy with their expected lifespan and saw no need to extend it? Maybe they weren't so much rejecting the idea of medication, as rejecting a longer old age? Surely quality of life is more important than quantity of life. Particularly on such an over-populated planet.

I'd rather have sixty good years than one hundred mediocre years. How about you?


Robert Hutchins,  Anthony J. Viera,  Stacey L. Sheridan  and Michael P. Pignone (2015) Quantifying the Utility of Taking Pills for Cardiovascular Prevention. Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes; first published on February 3 2015 asdoi:10.1161/CIRCOUTCOMES.114.001240.

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