We see it in hospitals and hospice facilities, retirement homes and rehab centers…we see it everywhere we look, from the bus ride through the city to the holiday visit with Grandma. It is the sad and depressing truth that we all must age, and we all must die. It seems, however, that we should feel blessed to be ever-increasing our life expectancy. We get more time to spend with our loved ones, our children get to better know their elders, and as human beings we get to experience the greatest gift of all (life) just a little bit longer all the time. We owe greater life expectancy to a host of causes including the progression of modern medical science, advancements in hygiene, an expanded understanding of nutrition and exercise, and a steady decrease of the unnecessary daily rigors of human existence. But what I noticed this week is that everything has its cost…including a longer life.
The average life expectancy of a person born in the early twentieth century was forty-five years, and in Early Modern Britain, roughly forty, Classical Rome twenty-eight, and in the Neolithic era the average person lived to be only twenty years old. It is safe to say that the trend line has been pointing up for quite some time, but is it all really such a positive? Since the early stages of evolution the human body has remained largely void of significant change. We may have progressed from quadrupeds to bipeds, and we may have straightened out our spines and even grown several inches over time. In fact we may have even out-evolved our need for the appendix. But for the most part we are still comprised of the same innards capable of the same functionality as we were thousands of years ago…with the same propensity for wear and tear. It should be of little wonder why women begin to menstruate (and thus obtain the ability to procreate) at an age we all consider to be so very early in life…at a time when most are so far from even the notion of procreating. Long ago, the timing of both that notion and female biology was in lock-step..
We were crafted by our creator in such a manner where we were supposed to slowly decay, and at a fairly discernible and predictable rate. Advancements in medicine and our biological understanding allow us to extend the functionality of our internal software (to potentially infinite levels) however this is all obtained within a finite piece of hardware created thousands of years ago, known as the human body. We are still held captive by those same boundaries today, yet we fight the inevitable truth. And because of this (albeit honorable and worth-while) fight, we witness our grandfather, whose cancer has gone into remission thanks to chemotherapy, later become decrepit and void of the ability to control his own bodily functions…when a century ago that cancer would likely have taken his life before such constraints arose. We see our grandmother who, armed with a donor kidney survive otherwise fatal renal failure, miss a step on the staircase and collapse upon her brittle femur, ultimately leading to a fatal internal hemorrhage…when not long ago she would have passed under much more serene circumstances. There is undeniable reason to give thanks for all the advancements made in an effort to extend human life, but as we should do when when anything seems too good to be true, we must always ask…what’s the catch?