Aging and dying the old-fashioned way

Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest book argues against aging gracefully


In her 2001 book, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America,” journalist Barbara Ehrenreich goes undercover as an employee in several minimum-wage jobs (waitress, hotel maid, nursing home aide, etc.) to expose the reality of those earning wages so low they can’t afford to feed, shelter, clothe or meet their health care needs. The critically acclaimed book shed light on the consequences harsh economic policies have on workers barely getting by.

Ehrenreich’s latest book, “Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer,” sounds promising enough. At the relatively healthy age of 76 (she survived breast cancer in 2000 when she was 58), Ehrenreich decides to investigate America’s obsession with living longer and healthier, and in the process, critiques the push for screenings, annual exams and scans for asymptomatic senior citizens like herself, and graciously accepts her station in life. “I gradually came to realize that I was old enough to die.”

Mortality is not a philosophical dilemma one needs to ponder endlessly, Ehrenreich assures us, and death, after several decades on earth, should not be feared or avoided. “In giving up on preventative care, I’m just taking this line of thinking a step further: Not only do I reject the torment of a medicalized death, but I refuse to accept a medicalized life, and my determination deepens with age.”

Whereas “Nickel and Dimed” focused on the plight of the poor working class, “Natural Causes,” concerns itself with the upper-crust, the top tier, those with comprehensive health care and the time, energy and money to attend myriad appointments, shell out dough for sky-rocketing deductibles and elective procedures, and enroll in weekend getaways at medical spas.

While it’s certainly the case, as Ehrenreich posits, that routine, non-emergency tests and false positives needlessly cause stress and anxiety, the kind of health care coddling she bemoans is a pipe dream for many Americans. The chapter “Death in Social Context,” touches on the well-being of the have-nots, but the passages primarily center on poor white Americans. In one section, “The Great White Die Off,” she writes, “Poor whites had always had the comfort of knowing that someone was worse off and more despised than they were; racial subjugation was the ground under their feet, the rock they stood upon, even when their own situation was deteriorating.”

The “worse off,” whether they be disabled, poor, LGBTQIA or communities of color are largely ignored in the book. It’s a missed opportunity to examine how and to what degree members of historically marginalized groups have access to full, healthy lives so that they, too, might die of natural causes.

Elsewhere in the book, it’s difficult to ascertain what, exactly, Ehrenreich is debunking.

In “The Madness of Mindfulness,” she addresses what she deems is the proliferation of “shrinking attention spans,” citing a graphic from a 2015 Microsoft Canada report that illustrates how the human attention span has shrunk from 12 seconds to 8 seconds, one second less than that of a goldfish. (The statistic itself comes from a website called Statistic Brain.)

“Small screens seemed to have swallowed the world,” she laments. The perpetrator? Silicon Valley, “the high-tech industry that created the tempting devices and social networks that consume so much of our time.”

Ehrenreich points to several factors — Steve Jobs’ “obsessive attention to details and complete withdrawal into himself,” “the unblinking, almost affect-free Bill Gates,” the personalities of the characters in HBO’s series “Silicon Valley,” and even Apple’s slogan, “Think Different” — as evidence that Silicon Valley is “ground zero of the inattentiveness epidemic.”

Given the plethora of research on the topic, her word choice and quotation usage with respect to certain neurological conditions seem odd. “Among the many diagnoses being bandied about are autism, which now occupies an entire ‘spectrum’ of symptoms, Asperger’s syndrome, attention deficit disorder (ADD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — all of which overlap in symptomatology and can markedly affect academic performance.” On the following page, she adds: “It did not take years of laboratory research to get to the likely source of this new ‘epidemic.’”

Does Ehrenreich truly believe that small screens cause autism and diagnoses are being “bandied about”? It would certainly seem so. She fails to mention other possibilities, like the improvement of diagnostic tools over the years or the push for earlier screening. Her theories in “The Madness of Mindfulness” feel a little too much like junk science. Considering Ehrenreich’s significant scientific background (she holds a Ph.D in cellular immunology) her disregard of other possible causes is glaring.

Still, all is not lost with “Natural Causes.” Ehrenreich deftly critiques the phenomena of “successful aging,” achieved through celebrity-endorsed, reverse-aging skin-care products, and exercise, the capitalist and consumer-driven industry that encourages people to contort their bodies into unnatural positions, repeat sequences ad nausea, and fork over cash for flashy fitness centers. Her interrogation of the evolution of wellness centers, which advocate for conscientious (and expensive) measures to reconnect the mind to its seemingly disconnected body, is keen and rigorous.

Besides, none of these absurd exertions will matter when the grim reaper comes knocking. “The organs we nurtured with supplements and superfoods abandon their appointed functions. The brain we have tamed with mindfulness exercises goes awry within minutes after the heart stops beating.” No matter, muses Ehrenreich, for a death at the end of a bountiful life is a kind of victory in and of itself. “Being old enough to die is an achievement, not a defeat, and the freedom it brings is worth celebrating.”



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Living

How to practice mindfulness exercises
How to practice mindfulness exercises

Mindfulness is a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. Practicing mindfulness involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress. Spending too much time planning, problem-solving...
Low-dose aspirin offers no overall benefit for healthy older people

A regimen of low-dose aspirin offers healthy, older people no benefit in staving off cardiovascular disease, dementia or disability and increases their risk of bleeding in the digestive tract and brain, according to a large study recently released. Millions of healthy people take small doses of aspirin regularly in the belief that the drug will prevent...
Long-suffering patient becomes a cyborg to find pain relief

“I became a cyborg to manage my chronic pain” Popular Science —- Janet Jay is a cyborg. No, she’s not RoboCop or Darth Vader. But she shares a similarity with those characters: Her all-too-human body has been upgraded with a machine. A next-generation implant deep in Jay’s back stimulates her spinal cord, overriding her...
Replacing carbs with wrong thing could shorten life
Replacing carbs with wrong thing could shorten life

Have you been living a low-carb life? Diets that swap out carbs for protein or fat - think Atkins, South Beach, paleo, keto - are popular largely based on claims that they lead to weight loss and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. However, new research suggests that replacing carbohydrates with animal fat and protein, as most...
1960 student test could be groundbreaking in fight against Alzheimer’s
1960 student test could be groundbreaking in fight against Alzheimer’s

In 1960, Joan Levin, 15, took a test that turned out to be the largest survey of American teenagers ever conducted. It took two and a half days to administer, and included 440,000 students from 1,353 public, private and parochial high schools around the country - including Parkville Senior High School in Parkville, Maryland, where she was a student...
More Stories