‘I am so glad I don’t have to hurt old people anymore’
If a person living in 1900 managed to survive childhood and childbearing, she had a good chance of growing old. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a person who made it to 65 in 1900 could expect to live an average of 12 more years; if she made it to 85, she could expect to go another four years. In 2007, a 65-year-old American could expect to live, on average, another 19 years; if he made it to 85, he could expect to go another six years.
Craig Bowron presents these numbers as evidence that “for all its technological sophistication and hefty price tag, modern medicine may be doing more to complicate the end of life than to prolong or improve it.” I think you could argue the point both ways. Unfortunately, there’s no data on the quality of those extra years. But this comment stopped me short:
At a certain stage of life, aggressive medical treatment can become sanctioned torture. When a case such as this comes along, nurses, physicians and therapists sometimes feel conflicted and immoral. We’ve committed ourselves to relieving suffering, not causing it. A retired nurse once wrote to me: “I am so glad I don’t have to hurt old people any more.”
Clarification:The way I wrote this post implied there’s no data on the quality of the extra years of life Americans gained between 1900 and 2000. That’s my fault for writing unclearly. I had simply meant there was no data answering the question in the column. There is relevant data in the wider world of health literature, including this study showing a long-term decline in chronic disability among the elderly. More learned readers should feel free to fill the comments with other relevant research.