What if we all had a ‘due date’?

So nice that NASA sent that sweet little machine into space to photograph Saturn’s rings, but did the investment match the outcome? Are we wasting budgets and resources?

Here is where we are, pretty much stuck in our strangely open-ended lifespans; lives that should be devoted to a much more pressing area of science – our life expectancy. To be more specific, a use-by date.

Consider the opportunity such research could offer bright-minded, well-resourced scientists, physicists and doctors, and perhaps even philosophers and psychologists.

We are born, we marry – or least shack up in a meaningful way – and we die, the three vital, usually celebrated steps that set the pattern for the continuance of our kind.

Pregnant women are given a due date and are able to plan their lives accordingly. Weddings can be scheduled to the very minute. Both of these are, usually, optimistic, life-enhancing occasions.

Death is such a different matter that, most of the time, we don’t even think about it, never mind make a time-plan and a guest list.

Suppose you get sick, and the doctors discover it is due to something rather serious. There is malfunction in an organ or two, or your clever neurological or chemical systems have been hacked and are doing things that will leave you increasingly helpless.

You go to hospital where teams of dedicated fixers swing into their curing roles and for a while you become the centre of their and your family’s and friends’ attention. Your body is subjected to drugs, surgery, implants, transplants, chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy.

Usually things improve, but some things can’t be clearly diagnosed or successfully treated. “You could have a few months,” a doctor might say. “Or you could go on for years.” So you go home and take your pain and/or bewilderment with you.

It is what happens next that seems to me to cry out for further exploration, because you can no longer pretend you are here for the long haul. 

In the post-death sentence state, you don’t necessarily know how quickly your illness will progress. If you are rational – people with dementia have a different set of problems – and not in severe pain, you have to start living this strange, budgeting-with-no-fixed-timeline existence.

Whatever you do, health issues will own you and, to a great extent, run your life. The man with the scythe has a foot in your door, and you know he is never going to leave. You also don’t know when he will step all the way in and get you, and this makes planning for whatever time you have left so difficult that the option of legal euthanasia might start to feel like a comfort.

It seems to me that the medical/scientific world needs to devote itself to accurate, practical prognostication. I am not a doctor, but I am a very experienced patient.

Here’s what the researchers need to do. 

They need to work out what the organising system is in each body, to see where weaknesses, defences, reinforcements and deprivations lie. To some extent they already do this. They see that blood vessels have filled with fatty droplets or that various kinds of cells are either growing too rapidly and in the wrong places or are not growing enough.

Clever advances in the medical world have already given us longevity our grandparents would not have believed possible. But prognostication is still a vague science.

Researchers might devise testing methods that delve into each person’s genetic script to determine exactly when the scythe will fall. 

Of course, researchers would have to deal with a big range of variables, such as diet choices, the weather, other people’s germs, the patient’s truthfulness and, of course, accidents. But, in standard conditions, I imagine a prognostic report would say something like: “Provided you stick to the diet, sleep and exercise regimens you worked out with your professional team, your use-by date will be no later than  …”

If you didn’t want to know your use-by date, you wouldn’t have to ask. But my guess is that most people in this peculiar situation would be glad to know for sure that we had no more than three months, or three years and 43 days, or 10 years and a week.

Then we could proceed more confidently into living, rather than have our focus constantly pulled towards dying. Our decisions would be more realistic, less deranged by hope, hyper-alertness or despair. Fear would be replaced by confidence.

Presuming that you do not have dementia, or are not in a state of severe chronic pain, and you had been given a definite date, you could more easily decide, for example, about upgrading your car, putting solar panels on your house, travelling to India, buying a puppy.

Potential heirs, who may be somewhat eager to see you out, may be more inclined to back off because they know how long they need to wait.

Accurate prognostication could save the world a fortune in ultimately useless medical interventions.  More importantly, it would keep an increasingly large proportion of society sane, focused and more confidently ticking off do-able things on realistic bucket-lists – lists that would probably include planning pretty spectacular farewell parties.

Would you ask to know your use-by date if that were possible? Would the capacity to know help or hinder your enjoyment of life?

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