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How Old Is "Old Enough to Die"?

Older adults focus more on the quality of life than on the length of life.

Key points

  • Perceptions of the acceptable age for death changes across our lifespan.
  • Older people are less anxious about death than are middle-aged adults.
  • Life expectancy is commonly misunderstood, but knowing how it works helps frame our thinking about death.
Ground Picture/Shutterstock
Source: Ground Picture/Shutterstock

I used to laugh about my father looking through the obituaries every day during the later years of his life.

I’m not laughing anymore.

I have qualified for senior citizen discounts for more years than I care to admit, and it is a rare month when I do not note the passing of a classmate or colleague, friend or relative, or at least a celebrity, who is the same age as I am or younger.

And regardless of how innocently they begin, conversations with friends in my age cohort inevitably circle back to health. Occasionally, there is even an animated discussion of how we will handle future scenarios where we face potentially life-ending circumstances. What would we be willing to do, or not do, to buy more time? And how much more time would be needed to make the expense and suffering inherent in such measures worthwhile?

In other words, most people will ultimately grapple with the question of how old is “old enough to die.”

Our Reactions to Death Change as We Age

Reactions to a death depend very heavily on the age of the deceased person but also depend on the age of the person who is making sense of that death. I vividly remember that when I was a young adult, learning of the death of someone in their 60s or early 70s evoked no great sense of shock. After all, isn’t that old enough to die?

I am no longer quite so cavalier about deaths in this age range, and using the phrase “struck down in their prime” would not seem as entirely misplaced to me as it once might have.

One can gauge how others feel about death by listening to the words they choose when discussing a recently deceased person. Do they ask questions such as "What might she have become?" or "What more might he have accomplished?" If not, perhaps the dearly departed's passing has not been perceived as untimely.

Deaths of anyone under the age of forty-something are almost always described as tragically young, especially in the case of children or teens. And while a person who died in his or her 50s may sometimes be said to have “died young,” the word “tragically” is seldom used. People in their 60s are tricky to classify. They are not commonly thought of as young, but they did not get to be really old either. A death in one’s 70s is more-or-less accepted as normal, and the 80s are widely considered to be ripe old age and a very full life.

Anything much over 90 is insanely successful.

How Do Older People Feel About Death?

Given how much nearer the specter of death looms for older people, one might expect that anxiety about death would peak during this time of life. However, research has consistently shown that this is not the case. Death anxiety is higher among middle-aged adults than it is among the elderly, and older people often worry more about the death of loved ones than about their own death.

Studies show that older adults mostly worry about dying badly. They are anxious about the process of dying, rather than about dying itself, and they worry about the impact that their death will have on those left behind.

Consequently, the focus among the elderly is very much on quality of life rather than length of life, with dementia frequently mentioned as the most feared boogeyman of them all. Among the very old, those over 95, there is a simple acceptance of the nearness of death as part of life, and many live day-to-day with the attitude that they are “ready to die.” For those who are in very poor health, death is sometimes even thought of as an escape.

How Life Expectancy Works

And so, how long can we realistically expect to live?

Life expectancy is a frequently misunderstood concept. I have encountered individuals who, knowing that ancient life expectancies were quite short, believed that people living in earlier times simply dropped dead at the age of 35 or 40 because that was their life expectancy.

Life expectancy does not work that way. Consider a hypothetical population of humans that is evenly divided between people who died immediately after birth and those who lived to be exactly 100 years old. When we compute the average age of death in this population (that is, their life expectancy), we find that the life expectancy for this group is 50 years of age. Notice that no one is actually dying at age 50; it is simply an average.

Historically, human life expectancies have been driven down by the horrific mortality rate among young children. As recently as 1900, worldwide life expectancy was only 32 years of age, but this does not mean that it was common for adults in 1900 to die when they were about 32.

Source: Chris Harvey/Shutterstock
Source: Chris Harvey/Shutterstock

In hunter-gatherer societies and prehistoric human populations, a person who successfully navigated the perils of childhood and reached adulthood had a pretty good chance of making it to 60 or even 70. The Old Testament (Psalms 90:10) description of the human lifespan as being “three score and ten” was probably about right on the money for the times.

What is most different about modern lifespans in developed countries is the large number of individuals who live into their 80s and 90s.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, life expectancy at birth in the United States in 2021 was 73.5 for men and 79.3 for women. But the key term here is “at birth.” Half of the men who have reached the age of 70 will still be alive 13.7 years later, which results in a life expectancy of around 83 for 70-year-old American men. Similarly, a 70-year-old American woman can expect to live for 15.9 more years, reaching about age 86. Hence, your life expectancy is a moving target that increases as you age.

In the end, the age at which a person thinks they are “old enough to die” is highly personal and fluctuates with one’s age, health, and other life circumstances. My goal in writing this post is to provide a context to help readers resolve the question that many are destined to face.

More from Frank T. McAndrew Ph.D.
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