We are living longer.  A lot longer.  Worldwide, the average lifespan is now 71.6 years.  Infant mortality is down.  Way down.  Everywhere across the world, writes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now.

Which brings up two questions:

1: Is the increase in life expectancy due mostly to the reduction in infant mortality?  


Those of us who survive the difficulties of childbirth and childhood live longer than our compatriots of earlier eras.  

No matter how old we are, we have more years ahead of us than people of our age did in earlier decades and centuries.  A British baby who survives their first year of life would have lived to 47 in 1845, 57 in 1905, 72 in 1955, and 81 in 2011.  

“A 30-year-old could look forward to another thirty-three years of life in 1845, another thirty-six in 1905, another forty-three in 1955, and another fifty-two in 2011,” Steven observes.  “If Socrates had been acquitted in 1905, he could have expected to live another nine years; in 1955, another ten; in 2011, another sixteen. An 80-year-old in 1845 had five more years of life; an 80-year-old in 2011, nine years.” 

The trend is the same in every part of the world.  “For example, a 10-year-old Ethiopian in 1950 could expect to live to 44; a 10-year-old Ethiopian today can expect to live to 61.” 

“The improvements in health among the global poor in the last few decades are so large and widespread that they rank among the greatest achievements in human history.  Rarely has the basic well-being of so many people around the world improved so substantially, so quickly. Yet few people are even aware that it is happening,” notes Georgetown professor and economist Steven Radelet.

2: Will these extra years be spent “senile in a rocking chair”?

Once again, the answer is no.  “Of course the longer you live, the more of those years you’ll live as an older person, with its inevitable aches and pains,” writes Steven.  “But bodies that are better at resisting a mortal blow are also better at resisting the lesser assaults of disease, injury, and wear. As the life span is stretched, our run of vigor is stretched out as well, even if not by the same number of years.”

The Global Burden of Disease project has compiled not just the number of people who drop dead from 291 diseases and disabilities, but how many years of healthy life they lose according to the degree to which each condition impacts the quality of their lives.  In 1990, the project estimated that 56.8 of the 64.5 years of life that an average person could be expected to live were years of healthy life. In 2010, of the 4.7 additional years gained in those two decades, 3.8 were healthy years.

There is good news in many areas involving health and disease,  including “a decline in the death rate from cancer over the past twenty-five years of around a percentage point a year, saving a million lives in the United States alone,” Steven writes.

“For many people the greatest fear raised by the prospect of a longer life is dementia,” Steven notes.  “But another pleasant surprise has come to light: between 2000 and 2012, the rate among Americans over 65 fell by a quarter, and the average age at diagnosis rose from 80.7 to 82.4 years.”

In 2001 George W. Bush appointed a President’s Council on Bioethics to deal with the looming threat of biomedical advances that promise longer and healthier lives.  Its chairman, physician Leon Kass, decreed that “the desire to prolong youthfulness is an expression of a childish and narcissistic wish incompatible with a devotion to posterity,” and that the years that would be added to other people’s lives were not worth living.  

“Would professional tennis players really enjoy playing 25 percent more games of tennis?” he asked.

Steven’s reply?

“Most people would rather decide that for themselves, and even if he is right that ‘mortality makes life matter,’ longevity is not the same as immortality.” 

More later!


Reflection:  How does the prospect of living more years impact my overall life goals and aspirations?

Action: Journal about my response to the question above.

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