May 22, 1998

The Denial of Death

Death, feared as the most awful of evils, is really nothing, for so long as we are, death has not come, and when it has come we are not.

Epicurus c.300 B.C.

The denial of death is part of almost every religion. Some believe that when you die, your soul goes to a heaven or a hell. Others believe in reincarnation; that when you die you return in the body of another person or animal. What they all have in common is the thesis that you do not die forever. Interestingly, no provision is made for one of the truly immortal animals, the amoeba. The amoeba that we see under the microscope may well be the same amoeba that existed millions of years ago. In the same sense as the amoeba, we are probably all immortal as long as we continue to reproduce.

Scientists are not immune to illusion. Periodically, one comes up with the secret, if not of eternal life, then of living longer than anyone has ever managed to live before. Somewhere around the '40s or '50s, scientist-writer Paul DeKruif was touting the magic of methyl testosterone. As I remember it, he said that he took it faithfully, knowing that it would keep him younger longer. DeKruif has been dead for some time. Now it's DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) and a wide variety of substances that can be purchased in health food stores and supermarkets. All will enable you to live, if not forever, longer and healthier lives. There is no longer a fountain of youth; there are many fountains, all guaranteed to make you younger or to make you live longer. Exercise and diet are touted as having similar properties.

Recently, there has been a revival of some work done in the 1930s. That work kept some rats under a diet that kept their calories restricted, keeping them thin, slightly undernourished and always hungry. Those rats lived longer than their counterparts(controls) who were given an unrestricted diet. I recently read about some similar work that is now being done with mice. What I read made it evident that the author of the work had no idea whatever of how to perform a meaningful experiment with mice. However, his conclusions were the same: the starved mice lived longer. Another report was about similar work done on monkeys. One of those scientists is using himself as an experimental animal in the same way that Paul DeKruif did.

When I attended my 50th high school reunion, it was interesting to observe that some of my classmates looked older than their age and some looked younger, A few surviving teachers were there and some looked younger than their students. Of course, about half couldn't attend because they were dead; but they were there in spirit.The joke that was making the rounds was "The boys all looked about the same, but I can't understand why they all married such old women."

One theory of ageing is that ageing is a consequence of accumulated insults to the body in the form of radiation and free radicals. While there is much to be said for this, it is obviously not the answer. If this were so, a mouse and a human would accumulate the same insults. However, a man under the best of conditions lives for 100 years, while the mouse not only dies by age 3, but the changes that we associate with old age that happen in a man in 100 years, happen to a mouse in 3 years.

There is a gene that produces high cholesterol and early death from heart disease. Few male bearers of this gene survive to collect Social Security. There are other families in which longevity is the rule. Furthermore, people in these families often look younger than you would expect them to look, considering their age. It seems likely that much of our life span is built into our genetic makeup.

Despite a person's genetics, it is possible to shorten a person's life by a variety of means such as the use of drugs, tobacco, intemperate eating habits and a sedentary life style.

My own observation, as well as published research findings, lead me to believe that people who lead active lives tend to live longer than couch potatoes. Besides, the quality of their lives is much better. I have seen many people of very advanced age vegetating in nursing homes. To me, that is not living. And the goal is to live long, not to merely survive for a long time. That quality of life can often be a matter of choice. Actual longevity is usually not.

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