Constable: The living have plenty to say about dying

  • The number of centenarians has jumped 65.8 percent since 1980, yet average life expectancy dropped last year.

    The number of centenarians has jumped 65.8 percent since 1980, yet average life expectancy dropped last year. iStock photo

Updated 12/4/2018 6:04 AM

You might not be certain whether your taxes will go down or up. But death is at an all-time high.

A record 2.8 million Americans died last year, about 70,000 more than perished in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The life expectancy for Americans fell for the third year in a row, led largely by dramatic increases in suicide and drug overdoses. Life expectancy hasn't fallen like this since the years 1915 through 1918, when World War I was killing 675,000 Americans and the flu pandemic took an estimated 670,000 more.


A few years ago, the news was full of stories about how the number of centenarians has jumped 65.8 percent since 1980 and experts speculated Americans might be on the cusp of a 150-year life span. Instead, Americans born in 2017 can expect to live 78.6 years, down a tenth of a year from the 2016 estimate, according to the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics.

Men could anticipate a life expectancy of 76.1 years, down a tenth of a year from 2016. Life expectancy for women in 2017 was 81.1 years, unchanged from the previous year.

We've been talking a lot about death in my family recently.

Our 19-year-old son, Will, sends us study after study showing that vegans are healthier and live longer. By being born in 1999 and living well, he and his vegan peers might see their lifetimes span three centuries.

My non-vegan mother is approaching her 92nd birthday and content with having lived in two centuries.

My father-in-law, 83, keeps telling us, "Don't grow old," but he doesn't tell us the age when we should drop dead.

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"Growing old doesn't bother me. It's just the maintenance," was a saying of my dad, who died at 87.

He used to point to the Bible verse (Psalm 90:10), which starts off, "The days of our years are threescore years and 10," or 70.

As a farmer who smoked for more than 30 years, earned a Distinguished Flying Cross in a B-29 bomber during World War II and worked in an occupation known for horrific accidents and toxic chemicals, Dad figured his four score and seven years went beyond expectations.

Mom, with some prodding, ended 80 years of avoiding hospitals (except for having four babies) when she got a new heart valve, knee replacement, wrist surgery, elbow surgery and, recently, a cortisone shot in her knee and a pacemaker for her heart.

I keep pushing her to get a bone-density treatment, an eye test, maybe a hearing aid and other maintenance.

"Burt, I don't want to live forever," she tells me.


I see her point, even if I want her to make the most out of the time she has left. A recent SurveyMonkey poll for Axios on HBO found that only 22 percent of respondents wanted to live past age 100. Among people age 65 and older, only 17 percent said they wanted to see their 100th birthday.

I remember the story of a newspaper reporter asking a person with ALS how it felt to know he was going to die.

"You mean no one's told you?" the sick man responded. We all are closer to death right now than we ever have been. There is a value to knowing you have a terminal illness and taking time to say your goodbyes, and there is a value to dropping dead and not putting loved ones through a long and painful process. The numbers say 78.6 years is how long we can expect to live, but a life span is more than years. When people ask me how I want to die, my answer is short -- on time.

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