Paul Thomas: We're living longer, but do we really want to?

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This push to extend life seems to assume that anything that might enable people to live longer is a good thing and must be encouraged if not enforced. Photo / NZME
This push to extend life seems to assume that anything that might enable people to live longer is a good thing and must be encouraged if not enforced. Photo / NZME

Here's an interesting statistic: since 1840, life expectancy at birth has risen three months each year, come war, epidemics or advances in medical science.

While sceptics believe the increase is a statistical phenomenon caused by the decline in infant mortality and has therefore almost run its course, others see the linear increase as a by-product of progress, a continuing process that will push life expectancy in the developed world up to 100 by the end of this century.

Furthermore, there are reasons for thinking life extension could be accelerated beyond what appears to be its natural rate of increase.

There's the amount of time, money and expertise being devoted to anti-ageing research, especially in the US. Those who want chapter and verse are referred to Gregg Easterbrook's article "What happens when we all live to 100" at theatlantic.com.

Suffice to say there are some awfully old laboratory rats shuffling around their cages in certain futuristic American research facilities.

And there's the increasing activism - some would say nanny state wowserism - of health bureaucracies.

In Britain, for example, the official measure of what constitutes safe drinking has been dramatically reduced. In 1984 it was 56 standard units of alcohol per week for men, 35 for women. It's now 14 for both sexes with the chastening proviso that even one drink per day significantly increases the risk of developing cancer.

Since 2014 British GPs have been required to interrogate patients to identify "mild alcoholics" - those who drink three pints of beer or two large glasses of wine a day. These abject creatures are then prescribed a drug that suppresses the urge to keep drinking.

America's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently urged women who are sexually active but not on some form of birth control to abstain from alcohol altogether to reduce the risk of foetal alcohol spectrum (FAS) disorders which range from being born with brain damage to getting into trouble with the law as an adult.

This push to extend life seems to assume that anything that might enable people to live longer is a good thing and must be encouraged if not enforced. Is it really that cut and dried?

Some question health officialdom's anti-alcohol zeal and increasing prescriptiveness.

One of Britain's leading statisticians noted that, for many people, the pleasures of moderate drinking outweigh the risks which are less than those associated with watching TV for an hour a day or eating two bacon sandwiches a week.

In bigger-picture terms, analysts quoted in the theatlantic.com article point to Japan's stagnation as a sign of things to come. (Through low birth rate and strict barriers to immigration, Japan's population is ageing faster than those of other western countries; by 2040 the median age will be 55.)

These Japan watchers believe the social, cultural and political dominance of the middle aged and old is a disincentive to young people and the oldies' determination to preserve their pensions and entitlements makes it politically impossible for the country to tackle its debt problem. Public debt is now US$10 trillion ($15 trillion), two times GDP.

Japan isn't the only country where economics and demographics are on a collision course. In 2012 the Financial Services Council estimated that if New Zealanders continue to get the pension at 65 and life expectancy increases as forecast, the cost of superannuation will reach 12 per cent of GDP by the end of the century necessitating a 28 per cent increase in taxes.

And then there's the broader question of whether the object of the exercise is to live as long as possible. Or to put it another way: how many of us really aspire to a 30 or 40-year retirement, a significant chunk of which may be spent "in care"?

We're already at the stage where few middle-aged people don't have at least one relative leading not much of a life in an old folks' home.

The recent example of octogenarian Melbourne scientists Patricia and Peter Shaw who committed suicide because their quality of life was diminishing and they dreaded losing their independence once again raised the question: should it be a fundamental human right to decide you've had enough and go out at a time and in circumstances of your choosing rather than lapse into a protracted shadow life of bewildered decrepitude?

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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