Is longevity overrated?

December 6, 2012

A recent New York Times Magazine article celebrated the long lives of the inhabitants of Ikaria, a Greek island 30 miles off the western coast of Turkey. According writer Dan Buettner, Ikarians regularly live healthy, active, productive lives well into their 90s. Ikarians reach the age of 90 at two and a half times the rate that Americans do. Moreover, it is an ordinary thing to see individuals living vitally to a 100 years of age. As one islander put it, “We just forget to die!”

There is no one reason why so many Ikarians live to ripe-old-age, according to Buettner, but there are a whole series of factors that clearly have an impact on local longevity. Besides perfect weather and a pure water source, the island's chief assets are its isolation and dietary habits. According to Dr. Leriadis, an island physician, people on Ikaria don’t live by a clock. They stay up late, wake up late, and always take naps. And, the basic Ikarian diet is made up of fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, coffee and wine. Add to all of this a constant sea breeze that keeps the island free of air pollution and one has a natural recipe for longevity.

For me, the thought of living to the age of 100-plus is both a fascinating and frightening concept. Longevity is important, but… and the “but” here is really complicated. But, what will I do? But, will I be healthy? But, will I be able to live a relatively normal life? But, will I still have friends? But, what about my family? But, won’t I be a burden and a nuisance to everyone? But, won’t I outlive my retirement money?

I do not think that the goal of life and the only objective of medical science is longevity. Living longer without a purpose to live for seems somehow cruel to me. But perhaps I’m being too small minded; Studs Terkel once told me that the best part of living a long life is that you may get a chance to use some of your experience and accumulated wisdom to help somebody else. Also, he said, with a bit of a twinkle in his eyes, if you’re lucky enough to keep your health, you get to dance more, sing more and laugh more with others! Wise words indeed, from a guy who matched the longevity of those aged Greeks on the isle of Ikaria — Studs was 94 when he died.

Al Gini is a Professor of Business Ethics and Chairman of the Management Department in the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University Chicago.

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