[ed note: Michael Jorrin, who we like to call ”Doc Gumshoe,” is a longtime medical writer who shares his mostly non-investing-related thoughts with the Gumshoe community a couple times a month. You can see all of his columns here.]
Every single health or medicine-related topic in one way or other touches on aging. We know that lots of things we do are bad for us and will likely dispatch us to an early crossing of the river Styx. We know about the dreadful diseases and dangerous activities that boost employment rates in the undertaker community. And, to balance the threats that we all know about, I’m confident that we’re all aware that life spans have increased significantly, not only here in the US, but all over the planet. But, somehow, it’s difficult to derive much comfort from those impersonal numbers.
Life expectancy data is affected in a major way when there are declines in infant mortality. For example, when Cuba created a community health program (after Castro took over), life expectancy went from just over 63 years to more than 79 years – a tiny bit higher than in the US. Most of this was due to a huge reduction in the infant mortality rate – from almost 80 per 1000 live births in 1950 to 5.13 per 1000 by 2010 (in the US, the rate is 5.4 per 1000 live births).
But a decline in infant mortality does not do one single thing for my own life expectancy, or anybody else’s, for that matter.
Similarly, other changes that have boosted life expectancy don’t affect my own chances of making it to the century mark. I already don’t smoke – never did! – and I always wear my seat belt. There’s not a lot of gang activity in my quiet town, and when my neighbor goes hunting, he does it with a bow and arrow (really!).
When we read about people surviving past the age of 100, we can’t help wondering whether they did anything particular to contribute to their longevity. A couple of weeks ago I read the front-page obituary in the NYTimes of an Englishman named Nicholas Winton, who had rescued 669 mostly Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939. He died on July 1st, at the age of 106.
And then there was the excellent Swiss tenor, Hugues Cuénod, who died in the year 2010 at the age of 108. He didn’t have a big voice – it was light, agile, lyrical, and lustrous. He mostly sang early music, not much later than Bach, But he did make his Metropolitan Opera debut as the Emperor Altoum in Puccini’s Turandot – at the age of 84. He gave his last recital at the age of 90, and entered into a civil union with his life-long partner at the age of 106.
What about Jeanne Calment, in Arles, France, who was still riding a bike when she reached her 100th birthday. As a young girl, she had sold art supplies to Vincent Van Gogh. For her 120th birthday celebration, she dined on foie gras and chocolate. She died on August 5th, 1997, at the age of 122.
Did these folks – and the many others whose lives did not include deeds worthy of obits in major newspapers, but who survived well past their centennials – do anything particular to extend their lives? Was it luck, genes, or something else?
A clue might