Squaring the Curve: Live Well, Die Fast

An exploration of living a full, healthy life versus aiming for the longest life possible. What’s the point in longevity without living well?
Squaring the Curve
Illustration by Darren Gygi

In the last years of my grandmother’s life, when she was around 90, she confided in me that she was ready to go. She said she was tired. Most of her friends and family were gone. And the world she’d known had all but disappeared.

This was surprising to me, since she’d always been an engaged, upbeat person, on her way to play bridge or to dinner at the Woman’s Club. She didn’t die for a few more years, but hers was not a graceful decline. Her memory and her mind slipped away in pieces, and by the time she died, the woman we loved—the toughest person I knew on the outside, the sweetest one inside—had been long gone.

After that, I never felt quite the same about aging. As a result, whenever I see news about the latest science of longevity, or hear local author Dan Buettner arguing we should all try to create our own so-called “Blue Zones,” where everyone lives to be 100-plus, I feel a wave of ambivalence. Obviously, none of us wants to die. But I can’t imagine wanting to live forever.

There are various critiques of the quest for ever-more longevity, but the one that rings truest for me is: Do you want to live to 100 because you’re afraid of death, or because you’re in love with life? Do you want to live long or live well? Do you want quantity or quality? Do you want, as the 95-year-old world track and field champion Olga Kotelko once remarked, to have years in your life, or life in your years?

In Sardinia, for example, people live long lives. But Sardinians are famously clannish, inbred xenophobes with a penchant for revenge killings. When travel writer Jason Wilson was assigned to write a Blue Zone-ish magazine piece, he tried to extract upbeat quotes from the elderly people he talked to, but they were thin on the ground. “Has it been a good life?” he asked a 102-year-old woman.

“Not so much,” she said. “Many sacrifices. Too much hard work.”

None of which means I’m advocating a life spent watching TV and shoveling in Doritos. But it does mean that I think the reasons to be healthy are different: While it’s almost impossible to lose weight with exercise alone, there is evidence that exercise in midlife and beyond can help stave off the decline my grandma experienced. Staying in shape can help prevent conditions such as heart failure, heart disease, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and Alzheimer’s, as well as various cancers, according to one study of 18,000 men and women.

This is known as “compressed morbidity,” or “squaring the curve,” and it means living a full life up to the end, then dying fast. And this—not living as long as biologically possible—is what we should be striving for. It also means not being afraid of old age, or of death, or of going out with your boots on like Kotelko, who at 95 was still smashing world records when, suddenly, she had a stroke, went into the hospital (her second time in an ambulance), and died a few days later. She “squared the curve with a ruler,” noted Bruce Grierson, who wrote a book about her.

When I think about Olga and my grandma and those miserable Sardinians, I know which path I want to take, and it doesn’t lead to some boring village Blue Zone. All I know is that, wherever it goes, I’ll run down it as hard and fast as I can, right up to the end.