If human beings were happy all the time, there would be little need for philosophy. If transactions never went wrong, there would be no market for lawyers and arbitration services. If individuals never became sick and died, few persons would choose to become medical doctors. In this light, death is not only the ultimate justification for medicine, but also its most crucial subject of study.
Statistics tell us why people die, but we have to realize that there is much more to death than what the eye can perceive. Road accidents, heart failure, stroke, and cancer occupy prominent positions in every country’s causes of decease. Contemporary data point out as well the growing death toll taken by age-related sicknesses such as Parkinson and Alzheimer.
Those statistics show the immediate causes of decease, but do not address the fundamental question of why people have to die in the first place. This issue should not to be dismissed as trivial. On the contrary, unless we get a clear idea of why we must die, statistical data become irrelevant. After all, one could argue, if we are doomed to pass away at 80, who cares if you die of cancer or diabetes?
All animals expire at a certain point and we take for granted that Nature has foreseen a particular lifespan for each species, but is this really true? Could science extend man’s life and push death away, decade after decade, allowing individuals to become hundreds of years old before their final demise?
The world shows many examples of men and women who have lived longer than a century. What prevents us from transforming their exceptional longevity into a general rule that would be applicable to all citizens? Nowadays, even if we could eliminate accidents as a cause of death, we would still be left with epidemics such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. Will they ever be eradicated?
Scientists have put forward many different theories to explain why animals die but, during the last sixty years, most of those hypotheses have been abandoned due to insufficient evidence. The two theories that have remained are considered, in the present stage of knowledge, as work in progress which, so far, seems to be pointing in the right direction.
* The waste theory considers death as the final consequence of biochemical decay. From the first moment that an animal begins to breath, its cells act as miniature biological converters that turn oxygen and other substances into chemical products that are consumed to keep the organism alive. That conversion process generates a certain amount of biological waste which slowly accumulates in the body. When the amount of chemical waste surpasses the body’s ability to deal with it, the animal dies.
* The exhaustion hypothesis regards death as the natural depletion of the body’s capacity to replace its own cells. While an animal is alive, its cells are continuously dying and being replaced by new cells, which are almost identical to the ones that have died. According to this theory, cells can only reproduce themselves a limited number of times without losing important genetic information. This limitation is what determines the maximum lifespan of each species, which in the case of human beings is estimated to be around 120 years.
When you hear about these two theories, you realize how little sense death statistics make. Indeed, if these hypotheses prove to be true, there might be a common reason for the most widespread causes of death such as cancer, Alzheimer, and cardiovascular disease. Would it be possible that those individual sicknesses are nothing but symptoms of a general process of biochemical waste-accumulation and cellular exhaustion? If that is the case, the practical consequences are earth-shattering.
What would you say if you woke up some day and realized that your vision of the world had been, until that moment, completely wrong? If the latest scientific theories about death are correct, this means that the mental patterns that most people use to make decisions might be massively unrealistic. The misunderstanding has its roots in our perception of sickness and death as the following sequence of events:
1. You are born into a certain family and social environment.
2. You live, eat, and work according to what is generally considered acceptable.
3. One day, cancer, cardiovascular disease, or other major sickness hits you out of the blue.
4. You follow a medical treatment in order to combat that particular illness.
5. Even if the treatment is successful, sooner or later, another disease will come to haunt you.
6. Finally, when medical treatments fail, you die.
If the theories of waste-accumulation and cellular exhaustion are true, we need to revise our mental representation of what it means to live, eat, and work. Sickness and death take a different significance when they are seen as part of a natural process which we might be able to influence to a larger extent than it is currently assumed. The new paradigm would reshape our vision of life into a sequence of events in which we play a much more significant role:
1. You are born into a certain family and social environment, which do not always know what is really good for you.
2. You will be much better off if you live, eat, and work using reason as a standard, irrespective of what other people think of you.
3. You should learn how to live in a way that slows down the accumulation of biochemical waste in your organism, since your own behaviour is the number-one factor that contributes to keeping you healthy.
4. When it comes to health matters, prevention should be your main concern. If we trust the waste-accumulation theory, the right behaviour should be able to keep away fatal illness until a later stage in life, allowing us to live longer and healthier.
5. You should learn to conduct your life in a way that minimizes cell exhaustion, aiming at extending your lifespan towards the ideal 120 years, which seems to be the limit for the human species.
6. What kills most people is a direct consequence of their wrong way of living. By correcting your mental patterns and daily actions, you can lead a much healthier existence and extend your lifespan.
Imagine the advantages if you could enjoy this world five years longer without being afflicted by debilitating illness. The inspiring aspect of the latest hypotheses about sickness and death is that they reinforce the idea that you, as a rational individual, are in control of your future. We are still far away from understanding all the implications of the new paradigm, but it is clear that the latest scientific theories strongly favour the fundamental tenets of living thoughtfully and independently.