Longevity Challenges – Self and Climate

I’ve been spending some time on Mastodon lately – mostly reading, occasionally boosting, rarely posting. As I said in the initial post on this blog, I stepped away from the more mainstream social media sites (think facebook, twitter, and instagram) both because of their algorithmic approach to these things and their capturing of my data. I’m still struggling to find my place in any sort of online environment (witness the infrequency of posts here), but I find Mastodon to be much more informative and engaging than other platforms, primarily (I think) because I get to choose whose posts and boosts I see. Moreover, the posts and boosts that I choose to see lead me to other Mastodon posters that I can choose to see. So finding my place on Mastodon is much like finding my place when I move to a new city – initially I explore things in my immediate neighborhood and/or areas of interest I’ve already identified, and what I find there gradually leads me further afield.

It doesn’t surprise me that my concerns about climate have led to a regular feed that contains a rather heavy dose of posts about impending climate disaster – several of the people I follow post repeated warnings about just how quickly our living conditions are going to get much worse than they are now. And the news gets even more alarming from one day to the next. It seems pretty clear to me that the longer I live, the less pleasant and more dangerous life is going to be. And it’s going to be worse for people who live longer. A rather depressing chart showed up in Mastodon feed last week, graphically illustrating the sorts of climate disruptions one might see during life depending on one’s birth year.

At the same time, I’m more and more interested in the work of Peter Attia, a doctor advocating what he calls Medicine 3.0 – a set of medical and lifestyle strategies to enhance health and increase longevity. It’s crucial to his project that longevity without health is rather empty – his focus includes both lifespan and health span. That is, he hopes not only to increase the length of life, but also to maintain cognitive and physical capacities so that one is able to enjoy life. While I’ve been relatively active both physically and mentally for much of my life, Attia’s work has led me to focus my lifestyle choices and habits on those that are likely to prepare me to enjoy life as long up until very close to the time that I will die.

So, two themes here: a focus on my own health and life and a concern about the emerging climate crisis. I’m struck by the overlaps between these two areas of interest. In some ways they appear to be at odds: why would I want to live longer if living longer means moving more and more into a disastrous environment? Is there any benefit to being relatively mobile and perhaps even agile at the age of 90 if the primary advantage of that is the ability to outrun a wildfire or storm surge? Assuming I manage to outrun it, what kind of life am I running toward?

But I think we might learn something by thinking about these issues together, recognizing that responding effectively to one challenge could also help us respond to the other. We are already seeing a negative impact of global heating on infant and lifelong health; it shouldn’t surprise us that our individual health is tied up with the health of the environment.

I think concerns about lifespan and health span are in play in both of these issues. I think also that in each case we would do well to think about the longer term. Regarding personal health, meeting the challenges of aging muscles and bones requires long-range thinking, setting aside short-term pleasures for long-term gains. This is not always painful – in fact, I’ve found that the long-range thinking has helped me to see those forfeited short-term pleasures as not all that pleasing anyway. In much the same way, we have to admit that seeking short-term pleasures and comfort – both as individuals and as a larger culture – has not only brought us to the precipice of climate disaster but also frustrates our efforts to change course now. Is there any chance that thinking more about the long term and living now as if the long term matters could lead to the realization that the perceived benefits of our standard way of living aren’t worth paying the long-term consequences?

In his program, Attia argues that the earlier one starts on the journey towards longevity, the less drastic the changes that one has to make. His standard analogy here is that of saving for retirement – the earlier one develops a disciplined approach to saving, the less one has to save each month. And each dollar one saves before the age of 30 will generate more savings than a dollar saved after the age of 50.

One could make the same analogy for the climate – if we had reduced our carbon footprint 50 years ago, then we wouldn’t be in such dire straits now. Because we put off the changes, we now have to make ever more drastic moves, and even these moves will merely at best make things less bad.

But I want to push on the analogy to make a deeper point. Those of us fortunate enough to set aside funds for retirement at any age need to recognize not only that others are less fortunate, but also that our good fortune has to some extent come at the expense of their ill fortune. Whether we’re talking about individual lifespan and health span, or the more general climate catastrophe, our individual use of resources have made and continue to make the lives of others ever more challenging. The picture gets worse if we broaden the “others” category to include non-human beings – and the world is so integrated that we won’t solve the problem for individuals without addressing it for everyone.

Not an easy place to be. But I’m going to continue to think about what I might do to nurture a world that supports a richer lifespan and health span for everyone.