Ezekiel Emanuel's Misguided Wish to Die at 75

Have you ever read an article that disturbed you enough that it stayed in your head for days after reading it? That happened to me over the weekend, having just come across a rather provocative article in The Atlantic from last year titled "Why I Hope to Die at 75."

In his article, oncologist, bioethicist and author Ezekiel Emanuel argued that for him death would be preferable to living beyond 75. He notes that while Americans are living longer than their parents, the physical and mental decline experienced in their golden years are simply too formidable. He notes this observation from Eileen Crimmins, a researcher at the University of Southern California: "... over the past 50 years, health care hasn't slowed the aging process so much as it has slowed the dying process."

Emanuel was only 57 and in good health when he wrote the article!

I will join the chorus of people who have cautioned Emanuel that seeking an ideal age of death might not seem so welcoming in less than a decade, even if he doesn't have the vigor and mental acuity that he once enjoyed. In the years I've spent focused on improving elder care in America, I've witnessed with incredible awe how even people suffering with chronic illnesses, including family members with ALS and multiple sclerosis, valiantly grasped to life rather than succumb to their illnesses.

Of this much I'm certain: Adopting the mindset in your 50s that you don't want to live beyond your mid-seventies will almost certainly hasten one's aging process. There is truth to the old adage, "You are as young as you feel."

Admittedly, Emanuel is correct in saying health care so far hasn't served the elderly well. But there is reason to be optimistic that will change. As Stanford bioethicist Dr. Christopher Scott has noted, previous aging research "is being abandoned in favor of something much more ambitious." Longevity research now embraces "big data, a pivot away from studies hoping to find aging genes" and a recognition "that aging is best thought of a collection of diseases, not just one disease."

There are also credible people who argue that the aging process can be significantly slowed, or at least curtailed, once an individual reaches their 50s. One book I'm told to consider when I enter that bracket is "Younger Next Year: A Guide To Living Like 50 Until You're 80 and Beyond," by Dr. Henry Lodge, an Internist who consistently ranks as one of New York's top doctors, and his patient Chris Crowley, a retired lawyer and fitness buff in his 80s. Lodge argues that while the body is genetically programmed to start shutting down when someone reaches their 50s, vigorous exercise six days a week can override the programming signal that it isn't time to shut down. I have a 60-year-old colleague, a former patient of Lodge's, who follows the book's guiding principals religiously and he can run circles around guys more than half his age. My colleague got hooked on the book after seeing Lodge over a period of about 10 years and noticing that he never seemed to age.

Emanuel might also want to visit the AARP' impressive "Life Reimagined" website, which outlines helpful hints on remaining sharp and productive in one's later years. Admittedly, one of the potentially rewarding activities the AARP recommends is mentorship, which Emanuel decries as "the constricting of our ambitions and expectations."

Not sure I buy Emanuel's cynicism: Twenty-somethings at the early stages of their careers are increasingly mentoring senior executives. (See here and here). That companies and professional services firms choose to put executives out to pasture in their 60s or earlier is more symptomatic of a corporate culture that no longer appreciates experience. Emanuel might be wise to ponder outlier companies such as IDEO, the Silicon Valley firm that employs Barbara Beskind, a 91-year-old designer.

Getting old isn't easy and life in the final stages can be daunting. But for the vast majority of the elderly I've worked with, it's still preferable than the alternative. They find new purpose as they age and choose to share what they have learned over the years so younger generations can make the world a much better place.

I wish Ezekiel a long and healthy life and hope that when he turns 75 he publishes an article, "Correction: I was mistaken about wanting to die at 75!"

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