The why behind death remains a mysteryDr. Richard Weindruch is a professor of gerontology and geriatrics at UW-Madison who can tell you off the top of his head that a French woman by the name of Jeanne Calment lived the longest life of any known human, 122 years.
By: By Mike Nichols, Superior Telegram
Dr. Richard Weindruch is a professor of gerontology and geriatrics at UW-Madison who can tell you off the top of his head that a French woman by the name of Jeanne Calment lived the longest life of any known human, 122 years.
But, smart as he is, he can’t tell you why she didn’t live any longer, or why other humans don’t either. Even people who completely sidestep disease eventually just check out — and why is a little bit of a mystery.
I called Weindruch because it seems like everybody in America is suddenly interested in how much we spend on health care. If we’re not arguing about Obamacare, we’re trying to figure out the intricacies of Medicare. I was all prepared to write that we’d better get a handle on it quickly because as people are living longer and longer and longer, they will demand more and more and more of the medicine and treatment that makes it all possible.
Except that Weindruch threw me a couple curves.
Turns out we might not be capable of ever living much longer than Calment. And people shouldn’t assume that average life expectancy — which has skyrocketed from under 50 years old in 1900 to almost 80 years old today — will continue to keep rising.
Weindruch says he once worked on a research project in which calorically restricted diets were used to help mice live as long as five years, twice what they normally do. They didn’t die of illness or disease.
“We would autopsy the animals and they would look great,” he said. “The only problem was they died. We really didn’t know what killed them.” Whatever killed them, he said, was “way more subtle than we could pick up.” In other words, they died of “old age, which is not a very acceptable label for people trying to really figure out what kills an organism.”
There is, from his perspective, a similar mystery about what causes death among really old humans, and how long they could theoretically live in the future.
Among experts, he says, there is a “wide spectrum of opinion” on that. “I would say the majority of people would say that large increases in the maximum lifespan of humans in the foreseeable century would be very unlikely but there are those who have a very different opinion, and think that sharp increases in lifespan will be attainable with new technology that is emerging.”
Surely though, I assumed, the lifespan of the average person — not the Calments of the world but you and me — will continue to increase.
“Five years ago I would have said I am very confident that would occur,” Weindruch said. Now he worries about “death in younger people due to the obesity epidemic and consequences of diabetes.”
The dramatic increase in average lifespan, he says, “reflects improvements in disease prevention and health care that have occurred, at least to up this point.” But, he adds, “God knows what is going to happen next.”
Everyone is arguing right now over whether President Obama or Mitt Romney will be more apt to put granny in an early grave. But we should step back (if we can even get out of our Barca Loungers) and consider a bigger issue. We’re the luckiest humans in history. Advances in medicine and nutrition give us decades longer than our ancestors. But that’s not the only factor behind rising costs.
We’re not just lucky. We’re self-destructive. Almost 30 percent of us Cheeseheads are obese, and obesity in America shaves years off the average lifespan and costs untold billions every year.
Everybody wants to talk about how we’re going to pay for the medical costs of older folks. It’s not folks who want to live longer lives who are our biggest problem. It’s those who seem to want to live shorter ones.
Mike Nichols is a syndicated columnist who spent 18 years writing about Wisconsin for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He is now a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. This column represents only his personal opinion. Contact him at MRNichols@wi.rr.com.