I just read Jason Karlawish’s article Too Young to Die, Too Old to Worry. Karlawish uses singer Leonard Cohen as a way to tee up a very compelling question: “When should we set aside a life lived for the future and, instead, embrace the pleasures of the present?” Cohen celebrated his 80th birthday this past weekend, apparently by recommencing his smoking habit with a celebratory cigarette. His argument –at 80, he is too old to worry about the health risks.
All of the health risks of secondary smoke and the impact on others around him aside, this act and attitude gave me pause. My inner public health zealot immediately came up with multiple reasons why this was a ridiculous excuse to light back up – there are NO good reasons to ever light up in my heart of hearts. However, the rest of the article went on to explore the deeper question of when or at what age risk reduction becomes unnecessary or ineffective. Given all of the prevention messages we are exposed to throughout life (or that we, as public health professionals, are disseminating), is there a time where we should pursue not just living, but also happiness?
With the vast population of boomers aging into their senior years, we will likely see this question being asked more frequently. We have more active and vibrant senior populations than ever – largely due to the advances in medicine; knowledge regarding the importance of prevention; and behaviors that result from that knowledge. Still, at what point will these audiences grow fatigued with all the preventive efforts, and adopt Cohen’s philosophy of living in the present? Will the tide shift overwhelmingly toward that philosophy, reaching a tipping point? And will it then start to ebb younger and younger, in a backlash to our current preventive efforts? What may happen is still yet to be determined… until then, we each may want to give more thought to the question of at what point happiness becomes more important than prevention. The answers may be telling.