The Modern Myth of Life Expectancy

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), Miranda—The Tempest. 1916.

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), Miranda—The Tempest. 1916.

We hear it often: life expectancy keeps increasing—but although statistically true, it’s reminiscent of Miranda’s naive declaration of  “Oh Brave New World”!   What got me thinking about the matter was another media battle of dipoles, between McGill educator and author Joe Schwarcz and the scientifically illiterate former actress Suzanne Somers.

He writes in his public Facebook account:

Suzanne Somers is back with another book. Tox-Sick. It seems that our crumbling health (never mind that life expectancy increases every year) is not due to gluten, or GMOs, or cell phones or MSG or exposure to Suzanne; it is due to toxic chemicals (are there ever any others?)

We know Somers is not necessarily appealing to reason, but Schwarcz’s statement about “life expectancy increasing every year” is also misleading. Here’s what few people realize:

“Nearly half of all the gains in life expectancy occurred in the period between 1921 and 1951, when it jumped from about 57 to 70 years of age. But this was largely due to reduced infant mortality.
Reduced deaths from circulatory diseases account for most increases in life expectancy since 1951.” from…/2014001/article/14009-eng.htm

A “never mind that life expectancy increases every year” – comment also reflects a kind of complacency.  No sane person would deny or regret medicine’s most significant advances: (1) the germ theory. which strongly motivated sewage treatment, ozonolysis/chlorination of drinking water and antiseptic environments in surgery and childbirth. (2) penicillin, which attacked infections; (3) vaccinations, which abated polio, smallpox and tuberculosis. (4) and anesthetics, which  made dentistry and surgery humane. But since then, aside from CPR and sophisticated bypass surgeries, which have extended the lives of heart disease victims, there have been few comparable landmark-advances in the field of medicine. Great obstacles have been tackled by the what Lewis Thomas dubbed The Youngest Science, but it continues to be impotent against many forms of cancer, Alzheimer’s, autism, diabetes, stress, some viral diseases and increasing antibiotic resistance. Cancer rates seem to have stabilized only because many avoid smoking, drink less and because the statistics are age-adjusted.

Health SH.XPD.PCAP/countries/1W?display=map

A “never mind that life expectancy increases every year” comment hides the fact that most of us would sooner die of a heart attack at 70 rather than live one extra decade in extreme pain at the mercy of morphine and harsh therapies or while suffering of senility. In Canada, we spend about $6 000 per capita on health care. This includes public and private contributions. In the United States, that figure was $8233 in 2010, up to $9146 in 2014. This is rendered more expensive than that of other countries having a similar life expectancy due to a combination of over-intensive technology in medicine, excessive bureaucracy, overpriced and over-prescribed drugs and liability insurance. If everyone on earth spent as much as the U.S., $58 trillion would be needed, which is about 77 % of the current combined gross national product of all the countries on the planet! Also bear in mind that the cost of health care increases as populations age. It’s another unsustainable feature of our unsustainable society.

Aside from addressing the issues already raised, we need to focus on prevention. In the last few decades, too much emphasis has been placed on measuring and trying to evaluate the impacts of specific compounds, which often seem to be present at low, innocuous concentrations.  But not only are the thresholds at times debatable, but over-consumption and inadequate regulation expose us to a unpredictable soup of substances in our air, water and indoor environments.

In 2010,  the President’s Cancer Panel reported that “the true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated” and strongly urged action to reduce people’s widespread exposure to carcinogens.

The panel advised President Obama “to use the power of your office to remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water, and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation’s productivity, and devastate American lives.

In trying to prevent heart disease and diabetes, there’s nothing wrong with jogging, sports or indoor gyms. But it’s just as healthy and more ecological to create communities where work, food markets and school are within walking or cycling distance of each other.

When we focus on life expectancy we are prioritizing quantity of life over quality. We know most of what it takes to create quality-education, better health, durable products and a meaningful lifestyle. Why then do we jeopardize so much by focusing on deceitful numbers?


Scientists and Heroism

While some of the public is already cynical, often questioning the true motives of scientists, some argue that students would find science more interesting if we revealed both the good and dark side of the people engaged in the field. As is the case with many educational strategies, there is never a perfect solution. A good deal of the public is more comfortable with the notion that scientists are a nerdy bunch preoccupied with expanding knowledge and that among them are some heroes who take giant steps.

I was reminded of the dilemma by an episode of Murdoch Mysteries in which a geologist-turned-paleontologist seems to value notoriety over scientific integrity. Meanwhile another paleontologist engaged in less sparkling work, resents the other’s accolades and makes him the victim of a hoax. All this results in a homicide and after solving the case, Murdoch laments how the drama has tarnished his boyhood vision of dinosaur bone-hunting.

In  an old interview between PBS journalist Bill Moyers and historian Barbara Tuchman, they discuss how we live in a world that “confuses celebrity and notoriety with the word hero.” Unlike a celebrity, a hero has a nobility of purpose.  In principle, successful science strives towards heroism, not fame for the following reasons:

(1)It has nobility of purpose in revealing how the world works and in hoping to improve the lot of humanity.

(2) Its mechanism relies on self-effacement and integrity as it seeks to evaluate data honestly. This can dismiss the hypotheses of others as well as one’s own.

A publish-or-perish atmosphere, one with competitive metrics or one that makes science subservient to profits is more akin to achieving notoriety and undermines research and analyses. Sociologically, it’s virtually impossible for science to operate completely outside of the forces that shape the rest of society. Such a revelation would be even more disappointing to Murdoch than the individual foibles of paleontologists.