Local News

Who wants to live forever?

SEBRING - George and Maryann Darling celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary three months ago. Many of their Maranatha Village friends were there, as were Maranatha Baptist Church parishoners. But this wasn't the diamond anniversary they had envisioned. It was held at Kenilworth Care and Rehabilitation Center, where Maryann Darling is still recovering from a fall. On May 7, she collapsed in the bathroom at the Palms of Sebring. A CT scan revealed a fractured hip and a broken leg. Like more than half of American householders aged 75 or older, George now lives alone at the Baptist retirement village north of Sebring. "Our quality of life isn't what either one of us had enjoyed," said George Darling. "It's been a gradual decline."
Just 100 years ago, the average life expectancy of American men was 50.3; most women made it to 55. These day, it's 23 to 25 years longer. By 2050, the U.S. Census Bureau projects at least 400,000 will live 100 or more years. One in five Americans will be 65 or older. Highlands County is already ahead of that curve: one in three are seniors. "Some futurists think even more radical changes are coming, including medical treatments that could slow, stop or reverse the aging process and allow humans to remain healthy and productive to the age of 120 or more," a Pew Research Center survey said in April. "The possibility that extraordinary life spans could become ordinary life spans no longer seems far fetched. A recent issue of National Geographic magazine, for example, placed a baby picture on its cover with the headline: 'This Baby Will Live To Be 120.'" The Darlings are both 80 years old. Do they want to live another 40 years? "If it's the Lord's will, I would," Maryann Darling. "But I'm having to start to walk all over again." "That's what wrong," George Darling said, a retired IBM program engineer, looked around his wife's room. Like any hospital or nursing home room, the Kenilworth rehab room contained a hospital bed, a bathroom and little else. "The normal life for us, it has been to be together in our home. This is not my ideal, I tell you." Their families are long-lived: his sister is 89, another lived into her 90s. A sister-in-law still lives by herself, but her seven children and an abundance of grandchildren surround her. "Family in close proximity, that makes a big difference," he said. "She's comfortable in the lifestyle she has. She is happy." The Darlings have four children, 17 grandchildren and 36 great-grandchildren. They hope to return to New York one day to be near their family, even if it's in an assisted living center for him and a nursing home next door for her. Maryann Darling, who drove a school bus for 23 years and was an interior decorator, had a grandfather who lived more than 100 years and a grandmother who was 92. Rehab has been rough. When she was in a Wauchula hospital with a dislocated hip, George Darling said, "she was in so much pain that the Vicodin - they gave her so much that it made her a zombie - I gave her a kiss and said, 'Open your eyes,' And she said, 'I've got them open.'" "They thought I had Alzheimer's," she said. Because seniors are living a third of a lifetime longer now, Alzheimer's rates are soaring: 5.4 million have the memory-wiping disease, which is now the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. One American in 57 has Alzheimer's. In the Sunshine State, it's one in 38, according to the 2009 Alzheimer's Disease Facts & Figures. One in every 20 Highlands County residents has Alzheimer's. "I would like to live to be 100 as long as I've got the quality life, and I'm free of any diseases," said Luis Rodriguez, Kenilworth Care's program director. "If you have your facilities about you," said Beverly Marshall, a Lake Placid artist who has set up a booth at Lakeshore Mall to display pencil drawings and clever Christmas wreaths. "If you don't, who wants to live to be 120?" Like Rodriguez, Marshall, 46, wants a long life if she can still contribute to society. "You want to give something back." The math of living an extended lifetime amazes Marshall: if she lives to be 120, that would be the year 2087. Her daughter would live until 2117. A majority of Americans see peril as well as promise in biomedical advances, although more think it would be bad for society if people lived decades longer than is possible today, according to Pew's telephone survey of 2,012 Americans. Would they choose medical treatments to slow the aging process and live to be 120 or more? Marshall was okay with being the Six Million Dollar Woman if, for instance, body part replacements were mechanical or came from her own stem cells. "As long as I'm the donor, I'm fine. But from aborted fetal tissue? For me, that's another issue." The prospect of a replacement hip or knee has become commonplace. Because of arthritis, 500,000 hip replacements and 3 million knee replacements may be necessary annually by the year 2030, according to the American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons. Still, 56 percent of U.S. adults would say "no" to undergoing medical treatments to slow the aging process. Ironically, 68 percent think that most other people would say "yes." And by similarly large margins, they expect that radically longer lifespans would strain America's natural resources and be available only to the wealthy. The public is similarly skeptical about the fairness of potential medical interventions. Seventy-nine percent believes everyone should be able to get these treatments if they want, but two-thirds think that in practice, only wealthy people would have access - a theme in the 2013 movie "Elysium." Asked how long they would like to live, 69 percent answer between 79 and 100. The median is 90, about 11 years longer than the current average U.S. life expectancy of 78.7 years. With the exception of taking excellent care of oneself with proper diet, exercise and chemical supplements, there is presently no method of slowing the aging process and extending average life expectancies to 120 years or more. However, Pew said, seven in ten Americans are optimistic that scientific breakthroughs by the year 2050 will cure most forms of cancer and that artificial arms and legs will perform better than natural ones. Public reaction to the idea of radical life extension is both ambivalent and skeptical, Pew said. Asked if new medical treatments could slow the aging process and allow the average person to live decades longer, to at least 120 years old, 51 percent of U.S. adults say that would be a bad thing for society, 41 say it would be good. gpinnell@highlandstoday.com 863-386-5828