So the bad news is I'm dying. Even worse, you are too, and you, and you over there in the back. It turns out, we humans are particularly ill-suited to staying alive. I've been looking into this recently, and yeah, no one seems to have beaten Death. That's a problem!
This month marks the beginning of my 39th year as a human. As I approach the mentally-significant 40s, I thought now would be a great time to do a little self-assessment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, its Life Expectancy table found on page 109 of the PDF at https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus15.pdf#015 states that for a white male born in the United States in 1980 (rounding up here), the average life expectancy should be something around 70.7 years. However, digging a little deeper, their National Vital Statistics PDF https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr61/nvsr61_03.pdf bumps that number up to a range of 77.2 through 78.2 years of age for my cohort.
Naturally, I wanted a second opinion. The Living to 100 Life Expectancy Calculator (a random online, non-scientific survey I found at https://www.livingto100.com/calculator/start/3) provided me a list of numerous lifestyle and family related questions. Based on those answers, it came up with an expected age of 78 years old. So let's assume that for this metric I fall decidedly in the middle and kick the bucket at 78. That would mean I am exactly 50% of the way through my journey of life.
That's harsh. Especially considering that my wife automatically gets a several year bump to that number just for being a female. In fact, the oldest verifiable human, who lived until the age of 122, was female.
So 78 it is. That doesn't seem like very much when viewed from the halfway point. It gets worse when that number is compared against other animals:
Those are just the vertebrates!
Even plants exhibit better maximum life spans. Both Sequoia and Bristlecone Pine have exhibited lifespans measured in millenia, and a Quaking Aspen tree colony is argued to be between 80,000 and 1 million years old ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pando_(tree) ).
Walking to lunch, I pointed out this discrepancy to a coworker. I told him it felt like we got the shaft, considering we had 10,000 years of progress and modern medicine and science on our side, while that tree has just been sitting there in the sun doing fuck all for that entire time.
His rebuttal, "Sure, they live longer, but we have Netflix."
I admit, my birthday month has not been something I've handled well for the last several years. My wife pointed out that usually in the first week or so I would be excited and make a lot of birthday plans, only to be pissy and unpleasant when the day finally arrived. And that is true. I have not been coping with my mortality for some time now. But in a fleeting moment of optimism, I thought to use this year as an opportunity for reflection, and possibly realignment, in my life.
Which led me to investigate life expectancy, as articulated above.
Okay, so potentially I have a few decades to work with here. My next question became, "What stands in the way of me at least reaching the average life expectancy for a married white male born in the late 1970s in the United States?" I decided to carve this question up into three sections: Physical Health, Mental Health, and Financial Health.
Back at the CDC website, I want to find out what most often kills people in my cohort. Thankfully, they produce a table for this question, in this case titled Leading Causes of Death, White, male, 35-44 years (2014) which I have taken from pg 27 of the CDC PDF found at https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr65/nvsr65_05.pdf . The top 10 things, with their relative percentages, that could potentially kill me in the next decade are :
Accidents (Unintentional Injuries) = 27.9%
Diseases of heart = 14.8%
Intentional self-harm = 13.4%
Malignant neoplasms = 11.3%
Chronic liver disease and cirrhosis = 4.2%
Assault (homicide) = 2.8%
Diabetes mellitus = 2.5%
Cerebrovascular diseases = 1.9%
Influenza and pneumonia = 1.4%
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) = 1.2%
All other causes = 18.5%
Even looking ahead another decade, the table remains roughly the same with the exception that, in the next age group (45 - 54 years) heart disease (22%) and cancer (20.9%) jump ahead of accidents (13.8%).
So for those top ten, here's a break out:
1 Accidents (Unintentional Injuries) = 27.9%
These are dominated by traffic accidents, fall accidents, poisoning accidents, and firearm accidents. Traffic accidents can be minimized from reducing distractions in the car (I almost never make phone calls or use my phone for texts or music) and obeying basic driving safety (I am a stickler for speed limits and seatbelts). Firearm accidents are another area where I feel comfortable with the real level of risk, since I have not kept a gun in our home since marrying my wife. Overall this one quarter of life-ending possibilities is one where my personal situation puts me in a lower risk bracket.
2 Diseases of heart = 14.8%
This one is problematic. Caused by plaque, poor diet, lack of exercise, plus, according to the CDC, I'm in the highest risk group, Non-hispanic whites, which account for 23.8% of all heart disease deaths. Geographically, I'm in the center of the SE heart disease population cluster. And probably the most damning, my father had a major heart attack at age 52 and my mother died from one at age 44. So that's not great. On the plus side, this risk is actually something that can be intentionally minimized through diet and exercise. Unfortunately, I have a serious problem with sugar addiction. I mean like Pablo Escobar-supported levels of sugar addiction. And I work at a desk job, which has been correlated with increased cardiovascular issues. In the immortal words of Bill and Ted, Bogus Dude!
3 Intentional self-harm = 13.4%
If you are reading this, you're probably a member of e2. And if you are a member of e2, I would speculate that at some point this is an issue that you have struggled with firsthand or been intimate with secondhand. The good news is, odds are that you have been a member here for quite some time, and your continued survival implies a certain amount of resiliency. In my case, these are demons that if I did not defeat, I at least subjugated, years ago. (And if this *is* an issue for you still, please reach out to someone. Life truly is wonderful, we just need someone to walk with from time to time to get past those difficult moments.)
4 Malignant neoplasms = 11.3%
Ugh, cancer. The three most common for men are prostate cancer, lung cancer, and colorectal cancer. Next in line is liver cancer. This is another trouble area for me. While my mother died of a heart attack, it came after a few years of intensive cancer treatment. In fact, I am about to be the same age that she was when she was diagnosed. Numerous aunts and uncles have also suffered from this malady. I'm going to need to come back to this one. Not a happy place.
5 Chronic liver disease and cirrhosis = 4.2%
At first I assumed this would be another low-risk for me, assuming Hepatitis C and alcohol related damage to be the main culprit. Then I read about NAFLD. Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease affects a statistically significant portion of the population, and one of the primary drivers is elevated consumption of high fructose corn syrup. Spoiler alert, I drink A LOT of soda. Exercise, diets high in fiber, and even coffee consumption have been shown to correlate with lower NAFLD rates. At least I have something to focus on in hopes of prevention.
For the rest, I'm probably a little risk for assault, HIV, or the multitude of corner cases that kill my age group in small numbers. Diabetes and stroke are definitely items to keep in mind when one sits at a desk as much as I do and eat as much junk food as I can get my hands on.
6 Assault (homicide) = 2.8%
7 Diabetes mellitus = 2.5%
8 Cerebrovascular diseases = 1.9%
9 Influenza and pneumonia = 1.4%
10 Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) = 1.2%
11 All other causes = 18.5%
It could be argued that my preoccupation with this topic is itself unhealthy. But I say any information is better than none, and the act of reading and writing about this can go a long way towards a healthier, more fruitful life.
I would also argue that participating in everything2 is both mentally stimulating and therapeutically relieving as a creative outlet. I know it has helped me, and I believe it has helped many of you as well.
As part of the new treatment for my chronic arm pain, I have been taking amitriptyline. This has been surprisingly effective, but in addition to the benefits related to decreasing my daily pain, this medication has also been used in the past to treat depression. So inadvertently, my mental health is getting a little pharmaceutical support.
Most importantly to continued mental health is that I love to solve problems. Problems like the 100% chance that I will die. That's a big problem, but it is a clearly defined one. It is something I can address. Well, it is at least something I will have to wrestle with until I die, at which point my mental health will probably not be an issue.
I'm married, and my wife is very good about tracking my temperament and stepping in when I seem stressed or depressed. That fact alone adds a little time to my life expectancy.
And I have a daughter, someone to care for and to live for and to work for who, with any luck, will be able to check in on me as I grow older. She's smart. Keeping up with her is going to be a challenge in itself.
But mental health requires a certain diligence that is largely unspoken in relation to aging. We change, the world changes, and life can be chaotic and uncaring. Developing the emotional relationships that help safeguard one from the vagaries of life is important.
This one may seem out of place compared to physical and mental health. But as many of you know through your own life experiences, healthcare isn't cheap. Financial stability can reduce stress and provide options at those difficult points in life. And coming from a poor, rural background, I'm predisposed to worrying about money. It is something that consumes a lot of my thought. Several years ago, in a precursor to the motivation that led me to write this, I began working towards a certain amount of financial independence. My inspiration for this I found in the Early Retirement Extreme community. Spend less, save more; Enough is as good as a feast; insert your favorite Benjamin Franklin quote here. Now, a few years in and with a defined plan I am working against, I want to know where I stand. Based on the calculator found at http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/05/11/are-you-in-the-american-middle-class/ , I am told:
"Based on your household income and the number of people in your household, you are in the middle income tier, along with 50% of adults in my metropolitan area."
"Among all American adults with your education, age, race or ethnicity, and marital status, 6% are lower income, 53% are middle income and 41% are upper income."
My mom, were she here today, would be proud. Even though she bought me the best Christmas present ever, I have come a long way from the dilapidated farmhouses and simple government housing of my childhood.
At another website, http://www.financialsamurai.com/the-average-net-worth-by-age-for-the-upper-middle-class/ , I find this description:
"The upper middle class, aka the mass affluent, are loosely defined as individuals with a net worth or investable assets between $100,000 to $2 million. Some also define upper middle class as those who are college educated with incomes in the top 15% – roughly $100,000 or greater for households or $63,000 or greater for individuals."
According to their Median Net Worth chart, based on 2016 Federal Reserve numbers, the Median Net Worth in the US for the 35 - 44 age bracket is $69,400. The Average Net Worth for that same group is $299,200, indicating enoug individuals to the right of the median has significantly higher net worth so that the average skews way up. In my case, our family has a net worth of roughly $120,000 (Our savings and debt free assets in hand minus remaining mortgage, with home equity / market value not considered as an asset). So almost double the median, but just over one-third of the average.
These numbers are not without criticism. A better picture of financial health can be achieved by considering my financial resiliency. What are my actual costs to support our family? What is my after-savings pay? Does it cover costs? Do I have outstanding debt, and if I found myself unemployed tomorrow, what kind of financial safety would be available to me?
Our monthly family cost (excluding savings / retirement dollars) is $1,521. That covers our mortgage, utilities, groceries, insurance, phones, and gas. Our liquid (cash) and semi-liquid (taxable stocks / bonds) assets currently cover over 21 months of family expenses at its present level. Our savings rate is 63% of income. For the moment, we are what I consider economically resilient.
So yes, I'm getting older. My lifestyle and family indicators point to some serious challenges in the years ahead. And yes, long after I've submitted my last writeup, or sent my last postcard, a Greenland shark born in the same decade as me will still be silently cruising the cold dark waters of the North Atlantic. A Bristlecone Pine, having taken root when my ancestors fought each other with stone tools in northern Europe, will still be here when my descendents extends so far into the future that my only record of existence is a strand of DNA in their genetic code.
I can't change that.
But I can look to these coming decades with some hope that I can, at least in a small way, anticipate the challenges I will face. I can treat my body as a thing to be maintained, unlike the invincible vessel of youth it once was. I can practice compassion and empathy, discarding the moral absolutes of a younger idealist. I can acknowledge the power and importance of financial security in a changing world. I can even lay down with my wife, my hand around her waist and our bodies close, and watch Netflix.
I can still change me.