Here’s the good news: by the time you read this, the presidential election will be over. One can only hope we will have survived the endless cycle of attack ads with our dignity and sanity intact, despite there having been points in this drawn-out campaign that I had my doubts.
While the world is mesmerized by Donald Trump’s misogyny and Hillary Clinton’s emails, I have turned my attention to something more interesting: death. (That was both a segue to my column topic and a shot at the election, in case the disdain wasn’t dripping from my first few sentences.)
Seriously, though, the potential age limit of humans is an interesting topic. According to the research I read this week, the increase in life expectancy seen in the past century is beginning to plateau, and we have a projected maximum shelf life – 115 years.
I’m no science major, but I’ll see if I can explain. Humans’ maximum life span is the amount of time people have been observed to survive between birth and death, assuming they enjoy circumstances that are optimal to their longevity – so basically, how long could a human body biologically survive in the absence of external influences like accidents. (There are other scientific markers that contribute to theories on life expectancy, like the upper limits of cell division, but they lost me as soon as they started to get too technical.)
Not all scientists agree, of course, and some insist it’s too soon to assume there’s a limit to how long we’ll hang around. Medical advances and technological discoveries will presumably continue to nudge human life expectancy upward. Maybe by the time my grandchildren are adults, 70 will be the new 40, and turning 100 won’t be unusual.
Although life expectancy in Canada is 81, my grandmother is 100, and the oldest known human celebrated her 122 birthday – so it’s safe to say, most of us have more years ahead of us than behind us. Can you imagine living for that long, to 115 years? And even if we can live that long, do we want to? Is quantity of years tantamount to quality?
I’d be a lot more curious about 115 if I weren’t already experiencing the annoying aches that come with the slow deterioration of a body I’ve only lately come to feel sorry for. If you’re 40-ish, surely you can empathize with a left elbow that’s throbbing for no reason, creaking in the knees, and the stiffness of a lower back. I’m not so sure I’d sign up for another 70 years of which the best health is already far behind me.
Many of us are fascinated and charmed by the ripe, all-knowing seniors who attribute their longevity to dark chocolate or red wine, but only the spry, energetic, and healthy make it onto Facebook memes that find their way onto our computers. Not all 90-year-olds are dancing on their step to Master P. It’s seldom, though, that you see a realistic account of an aging person, one who’s sick and whose body is failing them. That’s not as glamorous as a life of red wine and good health.
As we grow older, we also grapple with the “what ifs” of our own lives, assuming they stretch into old age. Would we want to continue living for years if we had Alzheimer’s? If we cannot physically get up from bed? If we’re in a lot of pain? Answers are individual and difficult to discuss. I’m not sure what mine are, except that I never want to be a burden to my kids. (My husband, sure…. he’ll be used to it by then, right?)
It’s no coincidence that these questions evolve as people watch their own parents and grandparents grow frailer and needier, as we recognize the trade-off that modern medicine will allow us to live longer but probably with more chronic illnesses.
As I get closer to a milestone birthday (less than three years to go), it’s not the thought of the grim reaper that weighs on my mind, how fast the time goes, how I took advantage of it in the past, and how best to make the most of it going forward.
I suppose I’m lucky just to have the luxury of contemplation, when so many others don’t.Still, I’m not sold on a 115-year-old version of myself.