Monday, October 15, 2007

Getting old

A few days ago, a friend of mine who is a semi-retired psychologist presented a small seminar on aging. Since I'm only seven and a half months short of 65, the magic age at which one becomes a Senior Citizen, I decided to attend. It was very interesting.

First of all, aging is not purely biological, it's biosocial. Social experience can accelerate or retard aging. Many researchers have noticed that members of churches, Rotary clubs, philosophy circles, bicycle clubs, or whatever, appear to live longer than the general population. Party hearty! It's good for you!

Aging is also dependent on the quality of mental activity you choose for yourself. An epidemiologist named Dr. David Snowden (sorry I can't cite the exact reference) studied a large group of elderly people who had written their biographies in their 20's. He found that people who expressed themselves clearly, grammatically correctly, and with high "idea density" (presenting a maximum of ideas with a minimum of verbiage) aged with much less senility. A possible reaction to this finding is, "Oh, my God, it's all in the bag by the time you are in your 20's!"

Actually, I certainly hope my fate wasn't all in the bag forty years ago. I fondly hope there's still room to continue changing my attitude and lifestyle for the better.

And now for the bad news. Medical technology now exists for keeping people alive for months or years after they've suffered ailments that would have been fatal a century ago. Sometimes the person experiences a very high quality of life after the event, sometimes not.

A woman in her sixties suffers a stroke. She's rushed to the hospital, and after a few months of recuperation, returns to a highly satisfying quality of life. Then in her eighties, she suffers a relatively minor accident, is saved temporarily by high-tech measures, only to die in a nursing home after several months of expensive but pointless care. What if the doctors treating her twenty years earlier had decided she's gone anyway, why bother, thus cheating her out of twenty good years?

A man in his eighties is beset by a variety of ailments that weaken him and require progressively more and more medical intervention. Several years ago he was taking five pills a day and walked with a cane. After a few years, he required ten pills a day and walked with two canes. After a few more years he needed twenty pills a day and was just barely able to struggle along with a wheelie-walker. Now he's up to forty pills a day and needs expert help getting back and forth amongst his bed, wheelchair, shower, toilet stool, car, dining table, and so forth. At what point should he simply chuck the pills, forget the doctor appointments, and splurge on a wild party and go out in a triumphant blaze of glorious celebration?

These decisions are not easy to make. An ailment or an accident occurs for which an expensive cure is available. Will it restore the patient to full health, or will it simply prolong the pain and agony? Is it ever ethical to withhold the cure from a patient on the grounds they'll never recover anyway? Is it ethical to saddle society with the costs of expensive treatments that seldon work, just on the chance that this patient might be the rare one who'll recover?

So here I am at 64. Just short of Senior Citizenship. I'm taking only one pill a day, I needed a cane briefly for a few weeks for an ankle injury about three years ago, I can still dig my own garden, ride a bicycle, bench press 1/3 of my body weight, (Okay, laugh, you tough young dudes!), and generally do pretty much everything I've always done. I feel great! I'm also under the delusion that I'll still feel great in twenty more years. But then, the guy on forty pills a day described in a previous paragraph felt that way too, twenty years ago.

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