What Doesn’t Kill You


At a certain point in your life you cannot get together with friends without talking about the various things that ail you, about the sicknesses of those who are absent and, regrettably, about those who will be absent forever. A friend of mine cleverly calls this the ‘organ recital.’

However, I’m not here to complain. Rather, as the year approaches it is nice to think of how much better the world is than it was even fifty or sixty years ago. This was brought home the other day when I was chatting with my mother-in law and I mentioned we both had major years ahead as I was turning 60 and she would have her 90th birthday. She replied that she would be quite happy to be 60 again. Given her health — not bad but shaky with more problems every day — it gave me pause. Really, my few complaints — my creaky knees mostly — are pretty minor compared to hers.

And, significantly, she doesn’t waste much time complaining but rather worries about what she will make for lunch. When the time left to you grows slim, I suppose, you concentrate on the immediate pleasures and not the long term pains.

Fifty years ago, we wouldn’t have had that conversation. Dorothy has had a fairly serious heart condition for over 15 years. Yet, through diet and careful medication, she has been able to not only continue living but live a life worth living. She has her books and her pets and her grand-children and, increasingly, great-grand children. And she retains an enormous will to live, because, for now and for her, living is still better than the alternative.

Imagine the lives of people 100 years ago. Few people than died of heart disease or cancer — but only because they had already died of something else. When people talk about a cancer epidemic it is really only a matter of focus. Cancer rates have not significantly increased among those under fifty in a very long time and indeed for some cancers have dropped dramatically (along with the drop in smoking). Cancer is, of course, a disease of the old, as is, for the most part, heart disease and other major organ failures. But because it is the only game in town we think of it as rampant.

It is a tragedy when people die young — I had two friends die way too young this year — but it is only a tragedy because it is no longer routine.

Think of all the diseases that no longer kill us — diphtheria, polio, smallpox, measles —and you realize how good we have it, especially in the West. There are still world-wide challenges — malaria and tuberculosis (but Ebola not so much) but for the most part the news is good. Life spans are increasing and child mortality falling.

We need to be vigilant (anti-vaxers seem determined to let measles and polio make a comeback) but for the most part life is good.

So have a happy and healthy new year. The odds are in your favour.

And that’s ten minutes.


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