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The Changing Definition of “A Full Life”

The Changing Definition Of “A Full Life”

The definition of “a full life” is expanding. Not too long ago, a person who lived until age 70 was considered to have had a good, long run. With lengthening life expectancies come new ideas about what people can accomplish in old age.

Newspapers from the early-to-mid 20th century typically treated such deaths as wholly unexceptional. The 1910 Los Angeles Herald, for example, reported that the stage actor Louis James had “died recently at the ripe old age of 68 years.” In 1899, the Little Falls Herald noted that a woman named Mary Honohan, of Brainerd, Minnesota, “died of old age at the hospital Friday, aged 70.” A reporter at the Corpus Christi Times wrote of a Soviet diplomat in 1954: “The amazing thing about Andrei Yanuarevitch Vishinsky is that he lived so long and died a natural death at the ripe old age of 70.”

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when 70 stopped being an acceptable age for a lifetime to end. Certainly, some of it had to do with gradually lengthening life expectancies. In 1900, the average 50-year-old could expect to make it to 71; today, he or she will live more than a decade longer than that. But as the definition of a long life changes, so do ideas about what people can achieve in the years once written off as “old age.” Consider the recent death of David Bowie at 69: Fans mourned the loss of the person, but also the loss of his future output.

What age do you believe is an acceptable age for a lifetime to end?

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By Lyn Lucas

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