Should We Even Want to Live Past 110?

Photo
Should We Even Want to Live Past 110?
Clarence Matthews, 110, at his home in California last year. At the time, he was the nation’s oldest man. Credit Ivan Kashinsky for The New York Times

As a journalist, you learn how many stories end with the humbling realization that the journey has only just begun.

So it was with my story today about a scientific quest to collect DNA from the world’s oldest people. Would the DNA of individuals who lived beyond their 110th birthday yield clues to the secret to long, healthy life? If so, could that be translated into a drug or therapy that would give the rest of us an extra decade or three?

No one knows. Even under the best of circumstances, it could take a decade to suss out such a drug, and the trial to test it could last — well, a long lifetime.

But the point of a quest story also sometimes turns out not to be about its stated quarry. And in this case, I had in mind another question to which the reporting did provide some answers: Is living to 110 even a goal worth pursuing?

Posing a version of that query to Clarence Matthews, who was the nation’s oldest man when I met him at his home in Indian Wells, Calif., did not win me friends in the Facebook Live audience that watched our interview.

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“What kind of a question is ‘Do you like being alive?”’ asked one viewer, whose sentiments were echoed by others.

But I was not alone in wondering.

Paul Cooper, the grandson of Besse Cooper, who wore the oldest-living-person-on-Earth mantle in 2012, summed up for me the zeitgeist’s love-hate relationship with extreme longevity: “People would say ‘That’s amazing,”’ he said of the reactions to his grandmother, who died at 116. “Then in the next breath, they would say, ‘I don’t want to live that long.”’

As I probed the happiness quotient of supercentenarians, I also tried, in interviews with the story’s subjects but also with my own friends and family, to unpack the reasons for our apprehension.

Maybe it was that we associate old age with illness?

But supercentenarians, as the 110-and-older crowd are known, are remarkably healthy on average until shortly before death. The idea, as longevity researchers will assure you, is to lengthen not life span but “health span.”

Were we worried about loneliness?

But with a magic supercentenarian-inspired drug, we would all live to somewhere near the limits of the human life span (which appears to be around 120).

Or going broke?

But one line of economic thought holds that, rather than plunging us into poverty, societal wealth would boom as a result of plummeting health care costs and increased productivity.

It was an email from my father, who is 74 and recently retired, that rang the most true to me on this front. During the time I was working on this story — which I started in 2014 and proceeded to report in fits and starts — he took to sending me old photographs of myself and family members, often with subject lines like “gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

While these may be a form of meta-commentary on the bittersweet passage of time, sometimes they seem more like an admonition: Stop rewriting those nut grafs and get out of the house; life (as he also has often told me) “is not a dress rehearsal.”

The most visceral fear, when I explored this with others, too, seemed to be that having extra time later could make us squander the time we have now. And yet, from all I could glean about supercentenarians from their family members, media reports, and James Clement, the collector of their DNA, they were nearly all inveterate gatherers of rosebuds.

To my indelicate question, Mr. Matthews answered that yes, he did indeed still enjoy life, and never had stopped. In this he was joined by fellow supercentenarians James McCoubrey, who frequented senior online chat rooms, pretending he was merely in his 70s, Will Miles Clark, who had just driven himself from Tucson, Az., to a family birthday party in Denver, Colo when he donated his DNA, and Goldie Michelson, an avid reader of library books.

So should we all aspire to 110-plus?

“It depends,” Ms. Michelson’s 86-year-old daughter, Renee, told me, echoing my own father, “on how you live.”

That may be the secret to life at any age.

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