In grand scheme, all lifeforms live enough
Life expectancy, or the average time an organism is expected to live, is a hard concept to grasp. It is partly because your life expectancy is a moving target — it changes as you grow older.
In the U.S., for example, life expectancy at birth is 78.94 years. This means that if you were to be born today, you would be expected to live until you are 78.94. Women live longer while men have shorter life expectancy (81.05 vs. 76.28, according to the Social Security Period Life Table).
As you get older, your life expectancy decreases — you just have less years to live. For a woman in the U.S., for example, life expectancy at birth is 81.05, at age 18 it is 63.68 years, and at 65 life expectancy is 20.32 years.
Here is some good news, though: while your life expectancy decreases with every passing year, your expected age at death increases! So, in the example above, a 65-year-old woman is expected to live until she is 85.32, which is higher than her life expectancy at birth.
This sounds somewhat counter-intuitive, but consider the 65-year-old woman in the example above: she did not die of sudden infant death, she did not drown in her parents’ pool at age 4, she didn’t commit suicide because of unrequited love at age 18, she did not succumb to breast cancer at 58, nor to a deadly heart attack or a lethal stroke at 64. She survived all of these and many other events that could have resulted in her earlier demise. She entered a group of older people who avoided earlier death, and are expected, at least statistically, to live longer.
Is life too short? The life expectancy at birth in the U.S. of 78.94 years sounds like a good deal of years, except, of course, if you just celebrated your 77th birthday. But how does life expectancy compares in different parts of the world? The World Factbook of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports that Monaco leads the way with a life expectancy of 89.5 years. (My mother told me I should marry the princess of Monaco. I never listen)
Singapore follows at 85 years. Italy is at the 14th location (82.2). Israel is ranked 11th (82.4), Canada and France are at the 19th and 20th place (81.9, 81.8), Finland is ranked 31st (80.9 years).
The United States, according to the CIA, is ranked at the 42nd spot (79.8, 2016 estimate) which may sound disappointing unless you consider the other 182 countries on the list: Denmark (life expectancy is 79.4), Hungary (75), Yemen (65), and farther down the list is Afghanistan (51.3) and last, at the 224th spot, is Chad where a newborn is expected to live a mere 50.2 years.
When talking about life expectancy, one should consider not only geography but history. We live longer than ever: In classical Greece, life expectancy was 28 years. In the late medieval England (5th to 15th centuries) it was 30 years, for the Great Famine and Black Death killed about half of England’s population. In 1900, the world average life expectancy was 31. And not so long ago, in 1950, it was 48. Compared to prior generations, we live in a time of long life..
In my last column, I told you about my summer trip. I wrote about Tel Aviv, the Mediterranean Sea and the air that carried a thin mist of steam and salt. There, as I was sitting in a cafe, I heard one person saying to another: Life is too short. And I asked, compared to what?
I told you that human life is shorter than that of a giant tortoise but longer than that of a whale, an elephant or a crocodile. I told you that life is longer in Monaco than in Morocco, and that I have already lived longer than an average medieval knight.
I told you about Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of a Moth.” Woolf felt pity for the moth: “The possibilities of pleasure seemed that morning so enormous and so various that to have only a moth’s part in life… appeared a hard fate, and his jest in enjoying his meager opportunities to the full, pathetic,” she wrote.
Back in the U.S. at work, during an unexpected break between patients, I found myself taking a short walk in nature. There, behind the hospital, lies a small pond surrounded by trees. As I was in the habit of making comparisons, I noticed that I am in a place unlike any other, in God’s country. I was completely alone, or so it seemed. And the silence was disturbed only by the chirping of birds, and the remote sounds of traffic on US-2.
Then, out of somewhere, came a dragonfly. It flew with vigor and purpose, making circles around me and a statement: This pond is mine!
The life of a dragonfly, I thought, is short — shorter than mine by much, for it was, after all, just an insect — but I felt no pity, for its part in life, shorter or long, seemed as complete as any other member of nature’s creatures, and filled with passion for living.
Dr. Shahar Madjar is a urologist working at Aspirus Keweenaw Hospital. He sees patients in Laurium, Houghton and L’Anse. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.