An Op/Ed piece in last Sunday’s New York Times about old people caught the attention of the Lady Friend and me. Written by Jason Karlawish, a professor of medicine and medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, it asked: “When should we set aside a life lived for the future and, instead, embrace the pleasures of the present? Or, putting it another way: When do you start enjoying the pleasures of the present when you still can?
The professor points out that at the start of the 20th century, only one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. population was over the age of 80. “Today,” he writes, “3.6 percent of the population is over 80, and life is heavily prescribed…More than half of adults 65 and older are taking five or more prescription medicines, over the counter medications or dietary supplements…(and) the list is long and getting longer.
Getting old in this century, he says, “is all about risk and its reduction.” (I once interviewed a surgeon in the 1980s who predicted that drugs would one day all but replace the need for the branch of medicine he practiced.)
Nowadays, writes Dr. Karlawish, “physicians are warned by pharmaceutical companies that even after they have prescribed drugs to reduce their patients’ risk of heart disease, a ‘residual risk’ remains — more drugs are often prescribed. The tagline for one fitness product declares: “Your health account is your wealth account! Long live living long!’”
When is it time, Dr. Karlawish asks, “to stop saving and spend some of our principal? If you thought you were going to die soon, you just might light up, as well as stop taking your daily aspirin, statin and blood pressure pill. You would spend more time and money on present pleasures, like a dinner out with friends, than on future anxieties.” When it comes to prevention, “there can be too much of a good thing.”
He cites the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association for setting 79 as the upper limit for calculating the10-year risk of developing or dying from heart attack, stroke or heart disease. These institutions also suggest that after 75 it may not be beneficial for a person without heart disease to start taking statins. But that doesn’t mean everyone follows this advice.”
The Lady Friend, a healthy, hearty 81, and I decided that neither of us (I am 86 in OK health and hearty enough) would start relaxing our ban on cheese, butter, ice cream, pastries, and the like, but with restraint — just in case.
This article originally appeared in the San Leandro Times.