How long do you expect to live? by George Lundberg, MD

January 16, 2012

Health Promotion

Don't Drink, Don't Smoke; What Do You Do?

To just what age do you expect to live? You haven’t thought about it? I bet you have. Would you like to live as long as Methuselah?

Television’s “Today Show” antes up centenarians to celebrate from time to time. There are about 70,000 American outliers past the age of 100. But that’s out of a population of some 311,000,000 people.

The most sensible place I know to read about this conundrum of aging is Nortin Hadler’s new book called “Rethinking Aging: Growing Old and Living Well in an Overtreated Society.”

Hadler argues that the human animal is pre-programmed to die in the 85- to 90-year age range unless killed by something else earlier.

I now consider American death before 85 to be “premature.” It is sensible to expend large resources towards conquering heart disease, cancer, stroke, violence, most infections, and lung and kidney diseases to prevent Premature Death.

But then everybody dies anyway.

What administers the coup de grace at that desired “ripe old age” is pretty much irrelevant. So, don’t sweat it, and above all, don’t expect to prevent it.

Martin Luther King famously said: “It is the quality and not the length of a man’s life that counts.”

I recently changed primary care physicians for my Medicare program. After a comprehensive history and physical exam and a bunch of lab tests, she said I was doing “fairly well for my age.”

I did not like that comment so I asked her: Do you think I will live to 85?

She asked: Do you smoke tobacco or drink alcohol? Oh no, I replied. And I don’t do other drugs either.

She said: Do you have many friends and entertain frequently? I answered: No, I usually stay at home and keep to myself.

She asked: Do you eat rib eye steaks and barbecued pork? I said: No, my other doctor told me all meat is unhealthy.

She asked: Do you spend a lot of time in the sun, like playing golf, sailing, hiking, or bicycling? No, I don’t, I said.

She persisted: Do you gamble, drive fast cars, or have a lot of sex. I said, No, I don’t do any of those things.

So, she looked at me and said, then why do you give a (expletive deleted) whether you will make it to 85?

As Dr King said: It’s not the length; it’s the quality.

George Lundberg is a MedPage Today Editor-at-Large and former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Originally published in MedPage Today. Visit for more health policy news.

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