If you could know, years in advance, that heart disease, cancer or another disease would someday kill you, would you want to know?
Last night we talked about that during our annual book club Christmas party, as we sipped wine and nibbled hors de’ oeuvres in a living room filled with Santas and angels. I know, that’s a morbid subject for a holiday party, but our group of very intelligent ladies never met a juicy topic it didn’t like. Our past discussions have ranged from memories of our first kisses to the ethics and economics of tissue sampling. So last night, when our friend Amy told us about a decades-long study that accurately predicted whether a group of young novice nuns would get Alzheimer’s, we dug right in.
The study looked at the novices’ writing styles and made an interesting conclusion. Decades after the first writing samples, it found that the young nuns who preferred flowery prose were less likely to be stricken than those who wrote sparsely.
In other words, don’t ever write stuff like “I had pizza last night.”
Instead, if you want to avoid Alzheimer’s, try this: “It’s been 12 hours since my friend John and I sat in Gino’s pizza parlor and enjoyed a steaming, fragrant, gooey slice of heaven.”
We wondered out loud whether we’d want to know, at age 18, if a disease like Alzheimer’s would someday cause us a slow and undignified death. We thought about other diseases as well, and how science is increasingly giving us the tools to study our genes and predict what’s in store for us. Amy said that she’d want to know, because she’d really dig into life with gusto and make sure she had a lifetime worth of experiences in a compressed time frame.
Others were not so sure. I wondered whether the information would ever stay private, despite any privacy policies. Could potential employers and insurance companies access the information and deny you a job or health care coverage? In the personal realm, would anybody want to marry somebody with an early death sentence? Or on a more positive note, would that knowledge be a test of your capacity for unconditional love?
Most of us in our book group are on the far side of 50, and some have experienced the unnecessarily drawn-out death of a parent, grandparent or other loved one. Many times I’ll scan the obit pages looking at the ages of the people who’ve passed on, searching for people my age and seeing what killed them. If the obit doesn’t, mention something like “he died after a long battle with cancer,” I look at what the family wants “in lieu of flowers.”
Would I want to know if this were in store for me? Not sure. What do you think?
(I promise my next subject will be about something happier!)