October is the month we celebrate death. We marvel at the colorful dying of the leaves. We celebrate the dead with Halloween, as we dress up as ghouls, goblins and specters. It is a time when the boundaries between this world and the next are incredibly thin, or so we believe.
As we get older, the years feel like a perpetual October as we ponder our own mortality. But as one popular meme states, “Do not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many.”
And as I look at the obits, the more I see that people younger than me or around my age are dying regularly. I’ve had friends and acquaintances die suddenly of heart attacks and other tragedies.
As we get older, death seems more real. When we’re younger, we engage in dangerous activities because we feel invincible and death seems far away.
A year ago I went through open-heart surgery, and while in rehab I was joined by many former co-workers. Some people were older, and some were much younger than me. I bemoaned the fact I had open-heart surgery, but at least I was alive because my problems were caught in time. I’ve had friends who weren’t so lucky and died suddenly of heart attacks and strokes.
Be lucky if you make it to old age. A BBC News article asks the question “Why aren’t we living longer?” For the better part of two centuries, people’s life expectancy has improved at a rapid and consistent rate.
For example, in the 1840s people didn’t live much past 40 on average. With improvements in nutrition, hygiene, housing and sanitation, by the Victorian period and the early 1900s, the average life expectancy was around 60 years of age.
As the 20th century progressed, life expectancies increased even more with the introduction of universal health care and childhood immunizations.
From the 1970s forward, medical advances in the care of strokes and heart attacks continued the improvement in life expectancy rates. As a result, by the start of the 21st century life expectancy at birth had reached 80 for women and 75 for men. This trend continued with an extra year of life being added every four years until it suddenly stopped around 2011.
What is the cause? Some say that after so many years of gains, humans have just reached the upper limits of their lifespans. Another explanation is that there hasn’t been a big medical or health game-changer in the past couple of decades. As people stop dying from one thing, another disease takes its place. For example, with greater numbers of people surviving heart attacks, strokes and cancer, the death rate from dementia has started to rise. With the medical community struggling to find ways to slow the disease, life expectancy has stalled.
However, Japan, which already has a longer life expectancy, has seen increases in recent years. Out of the wealthier nations, according to the Office for National Statistics, only one country had a significantly worse record than the United Kingdom, and that is the United States.
Poorer people have seen the biggest decline in improvements. Cuts in government spending on health care and welfare may play a role. Another factor is that it’s cheaper to eat less healthy. A Big Mac costs less than a bowl of fruit or a salad in this country.
American operatic tenor writer Robert Brault said it best: “Why be saddled with this thing called life expectancy? Am I to concern myself with an allotment of days I never had and was never promised? Must I check off each day of my life as if I’m subtracting from this imaginary hoard? No. On the contrary, I will add each day of my life to my treasure of days lived. And with each day my treasure will grow, not diminish.”