MATTERS OF LIFE AND DEATH

If you are offered immortality, would you accept it? Many might say, yes. We will die one day, but our mind doesn’t like to conceive of the state of non-existence. Most of us, however, would not wish to live extra years, if they are years of constant suffering and pain. The ‘mortality paradox’ worries us.

Since the beginning of civilization we have been searching for the elixir of life. This search has taken various routes. Stephen Cave calls it ‘a collection of life extension technologies’. Agriculture ensured steady supply of food so essential for our survival. The purpose of clothing was to protect us from the cold. We needed architecture to provide us shelter and safety. We invented weapons for hunting, and for protecting us from wild animals. We needed medicine to protect us from injury and disease. The search for life extension technologies is still on. In the present day, it includes genetic interventions to rejuvenate cells, stem cell-based replacement of aged organs and tissues, and nanotechnologies to kill nascent cancer. Due to the continuing search, we have been able to double the average human life expectancy. These technological interventions have solved, and shall continue to solve several of our problems. But, Cave feels, these efforts will create several other problems, like overpopulation and environmental collapse. How serious is the burden of aging? According to one study conducted a few years ago, the situation is not as alarming as it is made out to be. Study authors agree that reform is needed, but reform need not be as radical as many people think. In fact, the study suggests populations can effectively become “younger” through increases in life expectancy.

It is true that ‘unending life’ is not possible, nor would any sensible man wish for it. The idea of preparing oneself for death is also not a great idea. No one willingly dies, unless circumstances are so harsh. The fear of death should not, but persists. What we want is a healthy life span, not an extended one. Meaningful life has a time limit. What are then the secrets of a happy long life?

The secret of a happy long life, according to Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin, is meaningful connection with others. Their finding is based on the analysis of eight decades of the data collected by Lewis Terman. The data revealed some very interesting observations, and clarifies certain myths. Friedman and Martin recognized that some people are more prone to diseases and take longer to recover, but they say, “It’s time to bury the flawed distinctions between mental and physical health.” Based on the analysis, they say that illness is not random. Factors like personality, social relations, family, and religious observance play an important role in susceptibility to injury and disease. They say that the “unconscientious boys — even though very bright — were more likely to grow up to have poor marriages, to smoke and drink more, achieve less education, and be relatively unsuccessful at work. And they died at younger ages”. They say, the effect of stress on longevity may not be as bad as one thinks. They want us to appreciate that chronic psychological disturbances are not the same thing as hard work, social challenges or demanding careers. Advice such as slow down, take it easy, stop worrying, or going to the Himalayas, according to them, are unfortunate pieces of advice. Data indicate that those who worked the hardest lived the longest, and dedication to things and people beyond oneself was one of the hallmarks of successful achievers. They say, the long-lived individuals are the ones endowed with certain constellations of habits and patterns of living. “Their personalities, career trajectories, and social lives proved highly relevant to their long-term health.” Some of the myths their study shattered include: The good die early and the bad die late; get married and you will live longer; religious people live longer. Someone asked actress Lucille Ball the secret of staying young. Her reply was “live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age.”