“The elixir of life, also known as the elixir immortality and sometimes equated with the philosopher’s stone, is a mythical potion that, when drunk from a certain cup at a certain time, supposedly grants the drinker eternal life and/or eternal youth.”
The Fountain of Youth, also known as the water of life, was part of the search for the elixir of life. That search was in full throttle during the crusades, and was carried to the New World by Spanish explorers, the most famous of whom was Ponce De Leon in the 1500’s. Even the Mayans had legends about waters of eternal youth.
In the 19th century in the US, many believed that bathing in special springs had healing powers. During that era, people flocked to Eureka Springs, Hot Springs, Healing Springs, and many many more. So-called healing spas are still very popular today.
“Snake oil” salesmen were peddling various cure-alls and panaceas into the 20th century. A search on the internet will reveal a large number of “promising” balms and salves, some of which actually worked for minor scrapes and burns.
If you’re over 60 or so, you may recall Carters Little Liver Pills. It was advertised to treat biliousness and other ailments. The FTC made them drop the word liver from the name. Carters Little Pills are still sold today but as a laxative.
If you watched the Lawrence Welk show, you saw ads for Serutan, which is “natures” spelled backward. It’s a “vegetable hydrogel”.
Today, the search for an elixir of life, by various names, is still in high gear and salesmen for that notion are abundant today.
People today are still pursuing the same version of living longer and healthier lives by pursuing a mix of vitamins, supplements, wellness, incentives, education, exams, tests, and more, that will push the time of their death out a few years.
The aging body
But, alas, the human body and its organs simply wear out over time. No insurance plan, wellness plan, patient education program, or prevention combination, can defeat the inevitable. As we age, our bodies just wear out. For example, the reason brain aneurysms and strokes occur in the elderly is that blood vessels get thinner and more fragile with age. The same applies to other vascular diseases. Joint diseases are common as we age. Why? Joints just wear out over time. Dementia is usually related to aging. The list goes on and on.
Healthcare costs and the quest for immortality
Companies are paying huge dollars to “Elixir of Life” promoters today when all the facts show it just doesn’t work as advertised. Such companies’ intentions are good, even noble, but doomed to fail. Lesson: whatever you want and seek, someone will find a way to sell it to you.
We are all going to have a mortal illness someday unless we die sooner from something else like an auto accident. My grandfather died at age 99. Every organ in his body was failing. His kidneys were failing, as was his vascular system, his brain, and his liver, and more. Why? He simply outlived his body. I’ve known a number of good people who in the end died a miserable, terrible death after years in nursing homes. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.
Another factor driving up costs in the US has been the creation of the emergency phone number system of dialing 911 and having a life-saving trained team show up at your door in few minutes. The dial 911 system saves live no doubt, but there have been unintended health cost consequences too. If one survives a heart attack, the average cost is about $250k. Because of the 911 phone system, some 80-year-olds are surviving three heart attacks in 9 months just to die from the fourth one, adding $750k to their last 12 months. Now, they are even putting ventricular assist devices to keep people like that alive for one more day at a cost of $900k.
I’m not making a comment on the morality of deferring an elderly person’s death for 9 months at a cost of $750k to $2M. But we need to have an adult conversation in American about how we are going to pay for all this. By any measurement, Medicare and Social Security are both totally unsustainable unless huge changes are made that will impact everyone. Beware of proposed changes that promote intergenerational rivalries.
This Wikipedia chart shows death rates by age. When people hit about age 50, the death and sickness rates begin to skyrocket.
This chart, from Wikipedia, shows leading causes of death. See the strong correlation to aging and heart disease. People are simply outliving their hearts and blood vessels. In 1900, people rarely died of heart disease because they didn’t live long enough to develop chronic conditions. Most of the chronic diseases we worry about are simply a consequence of aging. They are irreversible. Like the Hydra of Greek mythology, if you defeat one chronic condition, three others will pop up in its place.
The third chart shows health spending by age (source Incidental Economist), again correlating disease to aging. It will always be that way until someone comes up with a way to prevent aging or finds an “elixir of life”. That chart also illustrates the massive wasteful spending on end-of-life care in the US compared to peer countries.
People born in the US today can expect to die along a bell curve centering on age 80. If we all do everything we can possibly do to be healthier for all of our lives, there will be slightly fewer deaths around ages 78 or 79. (A great source of information on this topic is Nortin Hadler’s The Last Well Person: How to Stay Well Despite the Health-Care System.)
Prolonging the end of life
In any case, if you are able to add a year to your life, it will be added to the end of your life. For most people, that will mean another year in a nursing home, in assisted living, or as an invalid at home. (For a Washington Post article on just how nasty nursing homes can be, click here. Again, I would not wish that on my worst enemy.) People sometimes tell me about someone who was more or less healthy and independent at age 90. For every person like that, there are a hundred in nursing homes or dementia units.
Most people retiring today don’t have enough in savings to support themselves for more than a few years, let alone enough to pay for assisted living and/or nursing homes when they are elderly and frail. Medicaid nursing home budgets are likewise unsustainable. Don’t count on that. For many people, living a year or two longer will simply mean being a burden to your children for another year or two, both financially and emotionally.
What about your children’s lives? Do you really want them to have to look after you well into their 60’s? At that age, they should be concentrating on their own welfare.
As people age into their 80’s and 90’s, many become demanding in an irrational way. Some people age 55 and up are relieved when their elderly parents pass away, but often with feelings of guilt. Most people have witnessed this in their own families.
Someday researchers may discover a way to delay the effects of aging. Personally, I believe such is the province of science fiction. If that ever happens, God help us. That would be very destructive to mankind.
Imagine our world populated by a billion or more centenarians. Imagine a nation with an average age of 65. Imagine yourself at age 90 with a 120-year-old parent or two. Who will look after whom? Will 70-year-old children or their 45-year-old children be able to look after and support such parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents? The news from Asia is that many young people are no longer willing to support their centenarian parents or grandparents today, let alone great-grandparents.
What should we do?
What should we all do then? Simple. Spend less time wringing your hands over which illness will get you in the end, rather make the most of the time you have. Worry will never add a day to your life.
The Romans had a blessing:
May you live well and die suddenly