The Religion of the American Immortal

Penn bioethicist Dr. Zeke Emanuel has been a lightning rod in the health-care field for some time.  He has been the subject of a flurry of media reports on so-called “death panels” and has even received attention in this blog.  Recently, in an interview with Judy Woodruff of PBS NewsHour he related how he wants to “stop living at 75.”

In the interview, Emanuel mentions his brother, “the American immortal” (I’m not sure if he is referring to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel or his other brother).  He describes him as:

“The American immortal are people who want to put off death as long as possible, want to live as long as possible and get every day out of it.  They take all these, they change their diet.  They exercise like mad, they take protein concoctions and all sorts of other supplements, and it’s almost a religion for them to live as long as possible, when I think in their mind they think they will be as vital as when they were 50 all the way til the end, but of course we all do deteriorate, we all do slow down, we all do get disabilities.”

Dr. Emanuel makes a good point.  A main driver in American health care is a thirst for immortality.  It affects end-of-life care, stimulates a therapeutic industry which manipulates hormones in the pursuit of the fountain of youth, and fuels health food and supplement commerce.

However, Dr. Emanuel, a man of medical science and a man of the data, sees things differently.    Instead of a “compression of morbidity” in old age, there is in fact an expansion; and one’s years after age 75 tend to be less productive.  Insightfully, Judy Woodruff in the interview brings up the concept that productivity (“contributing”) might not be the end all be all; later years could be a time of reflection and interpersonal relationships.  In his response, Emanuel recognized connections with family and friends but indicated that you just can’t do a whole heck of a lot after 75.

Indeed, productivity is very important to Americans.  Perhaps this is the true “religion” of the American.  Or perhaps addiction is a better term.  Nevertheless, this Seventy-Five mile marker hints at another important chronological concept:

For all our days pass away under your wrath;

we bring our years to an end like a sigh.

The years of our life are seventy,

or even by reason of strength eighty;

yet their span is but toil and trouble;

they are soon gone, and we fly away.

Who considers the power of your anger,

and your wrath according to the fear of you?

So teach us to number our days

that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Return, O Lord! How long?

Have pity on your servants!

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,

that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,

and for as many years as we have seen evil.

Let your work be shown to your servants,

and your glorious power to their children.

Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,

and establish the work of our hands upon us;

yes, establish the work of our hands!

— Psalm 90:9-17

Woodruff pointed out that Jimmy Carter is about to turn 90 and, ah, is still productive.  My great aunt is approaching that birthday as well.  And my grandmother lived to be 93 (and lived in her own home by herself until a few months before).  Perhaps we ought to consider the goodness of God’s grace in the span of our lives.



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Steve Phillips
5 years ago

If we who have a Christian perspective understand that the purpose of human life is to bring glory to God and that life itself is a gift from God, then we see this very differently. Rather than looking at how productive or how much of a burden we may be, we look at how we can bring glory to God in the life that he has given us to life no matter what age we are.