27 July 2011: Staying healthy until the end

Staying healthy until the end

Over the past several articles, I’ve been addressing topics related to personal health with the idea of promoting a conversation about it.

Simply put: Practicing a healthy lifestyle is one of the greatest ethical obligations one has to the rest of his/her community, since we all are paying the costs of America’s addictions to unhealthy foods, sweetened beverages, alcohol and other mind/mood altering substances. To say “It’s none of you business what I ingest” is to deny the ultimate financial reality of our material existence.

Ayn Rand was wrong. We are not separate entities whose responsibility is selfishly to no one but our individual selves. Each of us is an integral, intricate part of a complex web of humanity which in turn is but one aspect of a greater complexity. One’s choices can have impact and implications beyond his/her personal scope.

When one lets his/her body go to pot, he/she taxes the rest of us through higher medical costs, putting added, avoidable, and unnecessary strains on what we probably can agree is an overloaded health care system.

In a Denver Post column, former Colorado governor Dick Lamm suggested we look at rationing health care. For support, he points to mind-boggling statistics that are far from comforting: We spend nearly three times as much of our GDP on health care as we do on education, and more than three times on defense.

In 1960 we spent 6 percent of our GDP on health care; in 2010, 17 percent, yet America ranks 42nd in life expectancy.

In addition to focusing on sound health practices, it’s also incumbent on each person during his/her earthly sojourn to behave like a good guest when visiting friends and relatives: know when it’s time to go.

I jokingly but pointedly remind guests about Ben Franklin’s maxim, which I follow when traveling: Fish and visitors smell in three days.

Franklin’s aphorism then provides a challenging metaphor for our life on Earth: When is our three days up? When do we begin to smell?

It was striking to read David Brooks’ column in the New York Times about our “inability to face the inevitable.” Who would’ve thought an espouser of conservative principles would agree with Lamm? OK, Brooks doesn’t specifically suggest we have “a duty to die” as Lamm has, but in so many words he alludes to that ethical obligation.

“Years ago, people hoped that science could delay the onset of morbidity. We could live longer, healthier lives and then die quickly.

“That is not happening. Most of us will suffer from chronic diseases for years near the end of life, and then die slowly.”

Lamm reminds us that “the number of people who die from curable illness is twice as high as in some of the world’s best-performing health care systems.

“The list is long, the suffering unacknowledged yet widespread.”

The word “suffer” is the operating concept. I like to quote a paraphrased Buddhist tenet: Into every life, pain inevitably comes; suffering, on the other hand, is optional.

I find it amazing a culture that heavily subscribes to the myth of heaven is so terrified to move on to that “eternal bliss.” Perhaps it’s due to a nagging doubt about such a celestial realm indicating this earthly existence might be all there is after all, which leads us down a rabbit hole of metaphysical issues.

Brooks writes, “The fiscal implications are all around. A large share of our health care spending is devoted to ill patients in the last phases of life,” and points to spending on Alzheimer disease: By 2050, the costs could rise to $1 trillion annually.

“Obviously, we are never going to cut off Alzheimer’s patients and leave them on the hillside,” he continues. “But it is hard to see us reducing health care inflation seriously unless people and their families confront death and their obligations to the living.”

In an interview CNN’s Anderson Cooper about what it was like to take a patient’s life, Dr. Jack Kevorkian said, “I didn’t do it to end a life. I did it to end the suffering the patient’s going through. The patient’s obviously suffering — what’s a doctor supposed to do, turn his back?”

Noted the Washington Post upon his death in June, “Dying, he believed, should be an intimate and dignified process, something that many terminally ill people are denied, he said.”

Lamm holds we should shift our emphasis from quantity to the quality of life.

“If we put death in perspective and use fewer desperate measures to extend life, we would free up money to spend on improving the quality of our lives.”

Indeed. Living a healthy life and knowing when it’s time to say when.

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