1.8 Million More Survivors Each Year


Havre de Grace. -- Everyone knows that people live longer nowadays. In 1920, the life expectancy for a newborn child was 54 years. In 1960 it was 69. Now it's 75 or more.

Those are only statistics, but they stand for real people. A California epidemiologist calculates that if Americans had died at the same rate in 1988 that they did in 1940, there would have been about 4 million deaths. Instead there were 2.2 million. That means an extra 1.8 million or so people are surviving every year. Most of them are elderly, and they're much in evidence.

Around here lately, as in many communities, octogenarians seem to be everywhere. Most of them are busy as beavers, living vital, constructive lives and in all sorts of ways exercising a healthy influence on society. Demographically, this has to be significant, but it's a development we tend to take for granted.

Consider the example of one of my neighbors, Gerald Larner. Mr. Larner, who lives a mile down the road, is a distinguished trapshooter. According to a recent news story, he and his 12-gauge shotgun have been known to reduce 100 clay pigeons to 100 puffs of dust. He's now 92, and sometimes in competition he defeats opponents 50 years younger.

I don't think of Mr. Larner as old, necessarily. I just think of him as Mr. Larner, as much a part of the neighborhood as his fields or his attractive red barn. I didn't know he was 92 until I read it in the paper. Now I wonder if I'll look at him differently the next time I see him.

Mr. Larner's level of activity makes him noteworthy but not unique. The farm across the road from his is owned by a fellow in his late 80s. He's still farming; I see him out on his tractor almost every day. There are plenty of others from his generation around, too. We have fewer farms around here than we did, but we surely have a higher percentage of elderly farmers.

By tradition, farmers are durable people, although considering the lousy economics and genuine physical hazards of agricultural life, it isn't obvious why that's so. As is the case off the farm as well as on, some examples of longevity are probably attributable to conditioning and others to genetics.

If you want to be a durable person, you should start by choosing durable parents. One fellow I worked with on a farm, a man in his 70s, hardly ever took any time off -- except for an annual trip to the West Virginia mountains to visit his mother and father.

Regular exercise, whether it's performed in a barnyard or on a jogging track, surely contributes to longevity. So does better medical care. But the role of continuity in daily life is probably much more important. How many older people keel over in the first few months after they give up their life's work? Retirees on round-the-world junkets seem to die like flies. If anything will keep the Reaper at bay, it's good old routine.

The late Henry Beetle Hough, one of my favorite essayists, had useful things to say on that subject.

"Work is something to hang on to," he wrote in "To the Harbor Light," published when he was 79, "and one likes to feel the shape and size of it, and get the better of it while opportunity lasts. . . . What longevity demands is participation, and participation accumulated over a long span of time with as little interruption or remission as possible."

He's skeptical of the value of travel, the choice of many elderly people, and hoots at the idea that one should see the world before one dies. Nobody really sees the world, he says, no matter how long they are carted around to peer at selected vistas. It's better to stay home and actively participate in your own life than to look on passively at other people's.

"Some friends say that . . . it would do me good to get away for a while, that everyone needs change. I say that whether anyone needs change or not, he is going to get it, and he should have the right to choose between experiencing it at home or at some disjointed and alien spot."

The point Mr. Hough makes explicitly is underscored by example in the richly productive lives being led all around us by people of advanced ages. Those who determinedly keep on going in a chosen activity, whether it's farming or writing or competitive trapshooting, invariably last longer and accomplish more than those who give up.

And paradoxically, the more people who live to a great age, the greater the percentage that will die -- in their late 80s or 90s -- of cancer. This creates a statistic which can be used to suggest that we are living in a less healthy world than our ancestors, when all the evidence before our eyes is to the contrary.

While we're on the subject of statistics, this is a good spot for a clarification. I wrote a few weeks ago that Iowa and Utah spend much less on their schools than Maryland and Massachusetts, but their students have much higher scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Robert C. Embry Jr. at the Abell Foundation, president of the state Board of Education, points out that in Iowa and Utah only 5 and 4 percent respectively of graduating seniors -- the top students -- usually take the SAT, while in Massachusetts and Maryland 79 and 64 percent take it. Higher participation naturally means lower scores. Mr. Embry's point is valid, and I readily concede that my comparison of the four states was flawed.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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