Dying of old age

Rafael Puyol. Vicepresident. IE Foundation

10 February 2011

There are many underlying factors driving ever faster scientific advances, but one of the major reasons is the fact that our geniuses are living longer and are therefore able to exploit their talent for more years.

Ageing is one of society´s great achievements, the result of successive victories over death, which fortunately is arriving increasingly later in life. People now have an average life expectancy of over 80 years if they are women and a little lower if they are men. This increasing longevity should make us think about where humanity could be now if some of its great geniuses had had the life expectancy their descendants have today.

Let´s look at a few examples from the world of culture. The great musicians: Mozart (the greatest) died at the age of 35, Schubert when he was 31, Chopin and Mendelssohn when they were 39, and our promising J. C. Arriaga at the tender age of 20.

The great painters: Raphael died at the age of 37, Giorgione when he was 33, Masaccio when he was 27 and Modigliani when he was 34. The writers: Keats left us at the age of 26, Lord Byron when he was 36, Nemirovsky when he was 39 and Martín Santos at the age of 40.

The main diseases of their day took them away before their time. They succumbed to the usual array of illnesses of their times (tuberculosis, typhoid fever, meningitis, syphilis and others), helped along in some cases by a profligate lifestyle.

Today we have moved on from the “dying young" model to that of "dying old" and these geniuses might have lived to the age of 70 or 80 years, if not longer.
Can you imagine what we have missed? Ageing is a good thing not only for the people in question, but also for society in general. The numerous exceptions that confirmed the rule included Ayala (103 years), George Bernard Shaw (94 years), Picasso (92 years), Tolstoy (82 years), Verdi (88 years).

There is a Japanese proverb that says when an old person dies, a library dies with him. Today, the worlds of culture and science have grown exponentially not only because there are more creators, but also because they can apply their skills for many more years.

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