Your brain at 100+

Since about 1900, when the average lifespan for U.S. citizens was somewhere around 50, we’ve been pushing that boundary ever upward. Today, depending on exactly where you live and other factors like cigarettes and French fries, you can expect to hang on into your eighties and beyond. That’s fine with most of us, especially if our brains stay functional too – and therein lies the problem.

There is reason to believe, if neurological studies on worms prove out, that humans could live to be 300 with a little genetic tinkering. If you sign up for this, a possibility predicted by University of California San Francisco neuroscientist Dena Dubal, you might want to have Dr. Dubal and her colleagues nearby for your brain care.

At a recent luncheon in San Francisco, Dr. Dubal and fellow UCSF research scientist Wade Smith talked of the work going on in their labs as if it were simply what they do for a living. To a spellbound audience, however, it sounded more like miracle-making. “Just a little genetic tinkering.” Altering the aging process, staving off dementia… it’s all in a day’s work. A little extra Clotho (so designated for the anti-aging Greek goddess of the same name) blocked memory loss in mice, Dr. Dubal said; it’s reasonable to project that similar treatment might some day be made available to mammals.

This reporter came home, followed a few of those links and was quickly lost, which is attributable — in part, at least, we hope — not to short-term memory loss but to my degrees in Art and Short Fiction vs the very long list of degrees plus other academic and scientific credentials of Drs. Dubal and Wade.

For those of us already worried about the relentless increase in dementia among the 65+ population, the possibility of living to be 300 is not altogether good news. But fortunately our brains are the concern of the brains at UCSF.

Life: does longevity trump quality?

“We have to get out of the way,” she said; “make room for other, new people on the planet.” Accomplished author/editor Cyra McFadden, at a recent dinner party, was talking about a group of women scientist friends’ excitement over discoveries they have made which show promise of extending life a fraction longer. Cyra was in fierce, though silent, disagreement.

It may be time for those of us who disagree with the rampant prolong-life-at-all-costs theories  to stop being silent.

Americans are, in fact (as reported in Epoch Times below, and elsewhere) living longer all the time. Sometimes that’s just fine, especially if we’re in reasonable health. But what if we’re not? What if we’d just as soon be getting on with whatever follows this temporary time on earth? Millions and millions of people are living for hours, days or extended months and years in circumstances they would not choose simply because we have created a culture that says we must be kept alive no matter what.

Average life expectancy continues to increase, and today’s older Americans enjoy better health and financial security than any previous generation. Key trends are reported in “Older Americans 2008: Key Indicators of Well-Being,” a unique, comprehensive look at aging in the United States from the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics.

“This report comes at a critical time,” according to Edward Sondik, Ph.D., director of the National Center for Health Statistics. “As the baby boomers age and America’s older population grows larger and more diverse, community leaders, policymakers, and researchers have an even greater need for reliable data to understand where older Americans stand today and what they may face tomorrow.”

Where do we stand right now? Well, the same source that says we’re living longer and enjoying better health and financial security (hmmmm on the financial security business) reveals that Americans are “engaging in regular leisure time physical activity” on these levels: ages 45-64: 30%; ages 75-84: 20%; geezers 85 and over: 10%. Hello? Better health and financial security, just no leisure time physical activity? Could it bear some relationship to obesity factors in the same data: 30+% for men, 40+% for women?

Does living well need to be assessed in the compulsion to live long? Why not? Everyone should have the right to live at whatever weight and whatever level of inaction he or she chooses. But the system is weighted toward keeping us alive under all conditions, and bucking the system is not easy. A poignant, wrenching tale of her father’s slow decline and death — and her mother’s refusal to go down that same path — was recently told by California writer/teacher Katy Butler in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Almost without their consent, Butler’s gifted, educated parents had their late years altered to match the system’s preferences:

They signed living wills and durable power-of-attorney documents for health care. My mother, who watched friends die slowly of cancer, had an underlined copy of the Hemlock Society’s “Final Exit” in her bookcase. Even so, I watched them lose control of their lives to a set of perverse financial incentives — for cardiologists, hospitals and especially the manufacturers of advanced medical devices — skewed to promote maximum treatment. At a point hard to precisely define, they stopped being beneficiaries of the war on sudden death and became its victims.

Given the limitless sources of victimization floating around, we should not have to add just-try-to-keep-them-alive-forever health care to the list.

My husband and I, having long ago signed advance directives with additional specific issues sheets (“If this happens, do that; if that happens, don’t do this,” etc) recently got them out and talked things over again, a very good thing to do for EVERYbody over 18. We will add dementia provisions to the existing documents while we can remember to do that (the closest you can come to avoid being warehoused in a memory-loss facility for umpteen years.) We are clear, and our friends and family understand, about having no interest in hanging onto life in a greatly diminished state if such an opportunity presents itself; for increasing thousands, it presents itself every day.

All this being said, there’s still a reasonable chance that I’ll be out of town one day when I’m in my 80s (which aren’t that far off), get wiped out by a speeding cyclist and picked up in a seriously mangled state by the paramedics, taken to a hospital that’s not Kaiser (which has all my directives on file,) miraculously brought into some heavily-sedated state of being because the hospital doesn’t consult Kaiser or the living will registry (which also has my directives) and kept alive by assorted mechanisms. By the time my husband or children get there to insist everything be unplugged — which of course will involve long hours and possibly court action — hundreds of thousands of dollars will have been needlessly spent.

I consider myself a highly valuable member of society, and my life a gift from God. But would those dollars not be better spent on a few kids needing specialized care?

Epoch Times – Americans Are Living Longer, According to Federal Report.

Ethical dilemmas for one and all

In case you don’t have enough medical/political/ethical dilemmas on your plate, William Saletan tossed out a hefty bunch, in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, to chew on:

The most powerful revolutions of our age aren’t happening in Washington, the Muslim world or the global economy. They’re happening in science and technology. At a pace our ancestors couldn’t have imagined, we’re decoding, replicating and transforming the human body. These revolutions are changing how we live, what we think and who we are.

Bodies used to be unalterably separate. Yours was yours; mine was mine. That isn’t true anymore. Organ transplantation has made human parts interchangeable. Thanks to aging and obesity, global demand for kidneys and liver tissue is increasing. Meanwhile, anti-rejection drugs and other innovations have turned more and more of us into potential donors. But supply isn’t keeping up with demand, so doctors, patients and governments are becoming more aggressive. Death is being declared more quickly so organs can be harvested. Rich people are buying kidneys from poor people. Governments are trying financial inducements to encourage donation. The latest proposals, outlined in Sally Satel’s “When Altruism Isn’t Enough: The Case for Compensating Kidney Donors” (2008), include tax credits, tuition vouchers and cash. As pressure grows from the left through socialized medicine, and from the right through free markets, organs will increasingly be treated either as a commodity or as a community resource.

The one that catches my eye (see Looking at One’s Own End-of-Life Choices, 7/30; Palliative Care: Rush Limbaugh vs the Grannies, 7/24, and a slew of other recent posts) is confronted in a reasonable, head-on fashion.

Beyond transplantation and mechanization looms the broader question of longevity. Over the last half-century, the age a 65-year-old American could expect to reach has increased by one year per decade. In 1960, it was 79. Today, it’s 84. Life expectancy at birth has passed 78 in the United States and 83 in Japan. We have no idea where these trends will end. It’s been just six years since we decoded the first human genome and less than two years since we learned how to make adult cells embryonic.

The cost of caring for old people will be enormous, but that’s just the beginning. We’re fixing and replacing worn-out body parts for older and older patients. How much life do we owe them?

The long-run solution, outlined by Robert N. Butler in “The Longevity Revolution” (2008), is to treat longer life as a resource, not just a goal. That means exploiting its benefits, like wisdom and equanimity, while focusing medicine and lifestyle changes on extending health and productivity rather than dragging out the last bedridden months.

It is well past time for us to stop looking at prolongation of life, regardless of quality, as the be-all-and-end-all of health care. Religious groups, right-wing factions and assorted others are screaming that even coverage of honest conversation with one’s physician about prognosis, treatment and options is going to shove people into early graves. But conversations of such sort, and civil discourse in general, are desperately needed.

OK, according to the above statistics this writer still has eight years before my projected demise; but I am definitely one of the grannies Mr. Limbaugh and his ilk profess to be protecting. Thanks very much; rather than drawn-out bed-ridden months I will take wisdom and equanimity any day, if our health care reformists will please focus on addressing health and productivity for all ages. Problem is, the voices of “protection” are drowning out the voices of reason. Which makes this not just a dilemma but a potential national tragedy.

Crossroads – You – The Updated Owner’s Manual – NYTimes.com.