The British rock band Queen already asked the question in a dramatic song in the eighties: “Who wants to live forever”. Yet we try to do everything to live for a very long time and, more feverishly, to be someone important in that lifetime. Since you cannot live forever it would after all be very nice if you could mean something for posterity. That your name will still be mentioned by many future generations. Thus quite a lot of people work their heads off to end up in history books and forget to enjoy their own, short lives.
Life expectancy of human beings has risen dramatically in the past decennia. For many thousands of years, people didn’t get older than about forty years, but recently the age most of us are able to make has increased up to eighty years. This is thanks to good medical care, healthier diets, and better living conditions. It seems the end to the rise in life expectancy hasn’t been reached yet. But just as easily, unexpected circumstances can throw a monkey wrench in the works. For instance in Africa, life expectancy decreased substantially due to the rise of AIDS. In Russia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, living conditions have become a lot unhealthier so that the average male won’t reach sixty years of age.
Despite these exceptions, general life expectancy will most probably show steady growth. Scientists predict half of babies born in the year 2000 in the United States and in Japan will surely reach the age of ninety whereas ten percent of them will pass the line of one hundred years of age. The Netherlands numbers about 1800 persons over one hundred years of age now, but in the year 2050 expectations are that number will have risen to over 14,000 people.
In popular speech, the saying still goes age is a heavy burden. It brings along physical defects. It is generally thought the body will gradually wear out and more and more shortcomings and diseases will crop up. This thought turns out to be not correct, to put it mildly. Scientists in the United States scrutinised a group of people of over one hundred years of age. It turned out they hadn’t gradually become more infirm and ill. On the contrary, ninety percent of these centenarians still lived independently when they were 93 years old. The researchers concluded these super-seniors have healthy genes. They appear to miss defects in their genes of which it has been demonstrated they are involved in geriatric diseases.
In addition to the genes, the way in which you live is also of utmost importance, as Swedish scientists found out. Their research results showed genes determine only one fourth part of how old you will become. For over 75 percent, life expectancy is determined by how and where you live. A healthy lifestyle plays the largest part, but also strong family ties and meaningful work can contribute to a healthy old age. Even possessing a conscientious personality is favourable for reaching an advanced age. This type of personality makes you go for the better choices in life.
What kind of general advice do many centenarians give? Make sure you are in a good mood as this makes life less stressful. Take deep breaths regularly throughout the day and drink sufficient water. Walk a lot and make sure you maintain a correct posture. In the course of time, posture often deteriorates which exerts a negative influence on the skeleton. Cherish your friends.
Eventually, everybody will reach the moment when life ends. Australian writer and singer Bronnie Ware who dedicated many years to taking care of dying people, wrote a book about which things people regret most on their deathbed. Surprisingly, they generally have no regrets about things they have done, but especially about things they did not do.
Like: “I wish I had had the courage to do what I really wanted in stead of what others expected of me”’; “It would have been better if I had not dedicated so much time to my work”; “I should have had the courage to express what I really felt”; “I wish I had contacted old friends”; “I should have felt happier”.
Our calvinistic ancestors already had it quite clear: repentance always comes too late. And this is certainly the case when you’re lying on your deathbed. Thus the truly non-calvinistic message remains: enjoy today and don’t wait until tomorrow since tomorrow may never come. Or, to quote Queen again: “Forever is our today”.
All the same, we do live eternally in a certain way. Everything around us is made up of atoms and that goes true for ourselves as well. An infinitely large amount of atoms exist and they are extremely small. Half a million atoms can hide one next to the other behind a human hair. Atoms are also immensely durable. Nobody knows for how long an atom can survive, but by human standards they more or less have the eternal life.
That’s why every atom in our body in a distant past has been part of various stars and of millions of organisms before it ended up in the entity you call yourself. It is very likely we all possess atoms in our bodies that once have been part of Boeddha, the first emperor of China or the great painter Rembrandt. Sadly, no atoms of Albert Einstein will have been reincarnated into our bodies, since it takes a while before atoms will have dispersed again after a person’s death.
But thanks to our atoms in one swoop the woolly concept of reincarnation has been made factual and we ended up with eternal life after all.
“All the atoms of our bodies will be blown into space in the disintegration of the Solar System, to live on forever as mass or energy. That’s what we should be teaching our children, not fairy tales about angels and seeing grandma in heaven.”
Carolyn Porco, planetary scientist
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