Would you want to know when the end is near?

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!)

5 thoughts on “Would you want to know when the end is near?

  1. My dear and very special niece – I just love reading your blog and always look forward to a new posting!
    The answer to your question “would you want to know when the end is near” – I would have to say yes. I want that time before it happens, to have all my family,and friends, pay me a visit – share all our good and bad times, happy and sad memories and hopefully to have people say to my face what they would have said about me once I am gone.
    I always try to tell those I care about how I feel about them, to let them know I love them and cherish what they have brought to my life while we are all together. All too often I have seen people say -after the person is gone- what they really wanted to tell them while they were alive, but alas the time has passed and it is too late. How sad.
    Yes, I certainly would want to know – to prepare myself as well as those who love and care for me.

  2. Cath,
    I’m not so sure about this one. Somehow, I think we all struggle to live in the present moment. Knowing what lies ahead may be too much. Maybe we should just be focusing on the joy of the present day rather than being locked in the past or obsessed about the future.

    Also, you have no chance for “losing it” if writing has anything to do with the link to sharpness of the mind!

    Love your blog!

  3. I read your blog post.
    I read with great interest your illuminating post on the correlation between flowery prose and the onset of debilitating Alzeimer’s disease.
    I fell better already!

  4. I’d want to know. When asked people who don’t, state finding out such a thing would make you obsess on the tragic date and, in the meanwhile, forget to live what’s left of your life.
    I don’t think so. Oh well, I don’t think it’d be like this for me, at least. Humans tend to act like they’re immortal pushing death aside as something that is going to happen…someday… sooner or later… In the meantime they let life slip away in the most meaningless things, but that’s when you actually forget to live-your-damn-life (:
    If I’d know for sure the exact day I’m going to pass away you can bet I’d make the best of my lifetime, otherwise we are all just taking decisions blindfolded (which can be thrilling, I won’t argue, but let’s face it: it’s not the best way). (:

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