- - Tuesday, June 11, 2019


A recent New York Times obituary page prompted a handful of mortuary thoughts. No surprise there, of course: I’ve been a faithful consumer of newspaper obituaries since the early 1960s, have written a few in my professional life and have long since noted the steady convergence of my own stage in life with the ages of the deceased.

But history is as much to blame for this as morbidity. Beginning at age 12, or thereabouts, I started scissoring obituaries of people of interest — novelists, generals, composers, diplomats — and sticking them between the pages of appropriate books. What struck me about that particular New York Times page, however, had little to do with my interests as a reader. It was the age, not the identities, of the dead that caught my attention: Of the dozen people profiled on the page, very nearly all of them had died in their late 80s or 90s, and one was 102.

To every rule there are exceptions — one was an athlete killed in a car accident, age 35, and another (irony alert!) was a nutritionist who expired at 72 — but the overall message was startlingly evident: People are living considerably longer than they used to.

Indeed, when I began perusing the obit pages of The Washington Post and the old Evening Star all those decades ago, the typical economist or congressman’s widow or owner of a restaurant seemed to die somewhere in his or her 60s or 70s, if not earlier. People who lived to observe their 80th birthday were thought to have survived well into extreme old age, and the death of a nonagenarian was newsworthy in itself.

A generation ago, men and women who died in their mid-70s were thought to have lived a good long life; nowadays we might consider their exit to be premature. When I was first reading newspapers, the oldest president in American history was the incumbent, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who left office, full of age and honors, at 70. Our current president will be 73 this week and his two leading Democratic challengers, at the moment, are older still: Joe Biden is 76 and Bernie Sanders is 77. If Donald Trump is re-elected, he’ll leave office at the age Ike was when he died.

To be sure, presidents and prominent politicians — and for that matter, the worthies commemorated in the pages of The New York Times — are not a scientific sampling: Most of them are people who live in comfortable circumstances with access to the best of American health care. But the figures are indisputable: While it’s difficult to pin down a consensus on average life expectancy in the United States, it’s a decade or more higher in 2019 — somewhere around 80, higher for women — than it was a half-century ago. At that time the demise of a 90-year-old was a once-a-month occurrence, at best, in the newspapers; now there are days when the average age at death on the obit page is 94.

How did this happen?

The obvious answer is medicine, especially the development of antibiotics in the mid-20th century. In 1924, 16-year-old Calvin Coolidge Jr., son of the president, scraped his toe on the White House tennis court. A week later he was dead of infection, an unimaginable sequence of events in our time. Drugs that control hypertension have dramatically reduced the number of people toppling over with strokes or coronaries in their 50s and 60s. Carcinomas which were once swift sentences of death — pancreatic cancer, leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease — may be managed and survived, if not cured. Once-fatal traumas are survived by way of surgery. Various common conditions of the past — tuberculosis, pneumonia, complications of childbirth — are no longer the widespread scourge they used to be.

Then, too, people are leading healthier lives: Smoking is no longer a ubiquitous habit, Americans are conscious of the risks of obesity, the foods we eat (or avoid) affect health, and we know it. And yet, of course, longevity can be a mixed blessing. The modern “epidemic” of Alzheimer’s disease is a case in point, where the life of the brain cannot correspond to the body’s vitality. Or conversely, extreme old age yields weakness and debilitating physical decline while the heart and the mind keep chugging along. Aging Baby Boomers, now sliding into retirement, find themselves responsible for parents who’ve survived into their 90s and beyond.

On balance, of course, longevity is much to be preferred to the alternative. But we have not yet contrived a social economy — or system of work — where the resources of those past retirement age are considered beneficial, or regarded as a resource at all. Sooner or later “retirement” will equal the length of working life, and decades of idleness will come to resemble death.

• Philip Terzian, former writer and editor at The Weekly Standard, is the author of “Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century.”

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