Matthew Norman: The paradox of our obsession with long life

The crucial question is the one posed by Queen. Who wants to live forever? Or so joylessly it feels that way?

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In shock medical news from the United States, people have been dying again. They will do it. You can warn them not to until you are blue in the face from dying yourself, but will they listen? The dead in question are the 24,000 souls who vacated this world during a 30-year Harvard study of 120,000 subjects. Noting that this represents an alarming mortality rate of one in five, one might assume that the report's key finding is that taking part in such a study is 9.2 times more likely to prove more fatal than paragliding over a Taliban stronghold while overdosing on a cocktail of crystal meth and household bleach. If only.

In fact, the key finding is this: the only way you won't be killed by eating more than a tiny amount of red meat (about half a small steak a week) is if you also eat the bacon and sausage which will kill you even quicker. I paraphrase very slightly and irresponsibly. A long study rigorously conducted by the revered Harvard School of Public Health should not be flippantly reduced to a scare story headline. Yet the temptation to do so is as hard to resist as the blood-oozing joints of beef with which some papers chose to illustrate their reports yesterday. For mischievous cruelty, this brought to mind Jim Bowen asking defeated Bullseye contestants to rejoin him with "Come back, lads, and take a look at what you would have won!"

In defiance of Mr Bowen's core belief, the Harvard team posits that you can beat a bit of bully – by replacing artery-clogging beef with protein alternatives such as nuts – and reduce various cancer risks by substituting the smoked streaky with lentils.

The crucial question here is the one posed by Queen. Who wants to live for ever? Or if not for ever, for so long and joylessly that it feels that way? And the unequivocal answer is umm, well, err, it depends, because the question is plagued by the unknowability of how extra years cleaved from the Reaper by a diet of pulses and grains would be spent. If genetic testing established that one would be severely demented at 77, and sentenced by the failure to build a pension pot to life in a state-funded home, who wouldn't take an epicurean leaf from Horace and live for today? Hedonistic over-indulgence would be obligatory.

It is a peculiarly hateful paradox, after all, that the more we fixate on stretching human existence beyond what appear its sensible limits, the more shamefully we mistreat those supposedly benefiting from the Methuselan span we are expected to crave. If you knew now that on your deathbed, in early old age, the Archangel Bowen would pop along to show you what you could have won if you'd laid off the burgers and ribs – and that Bully's star prize was the chance to sit in soiled pads for 12 hours a day while "carers" sprayed the Glade in your general direction and talked drivel about The Only Way Is Essex – you'd stick to a diet of Danepak and sirloin with lashings of untipped Gitanes on the side. A good, clean death at 73 from a coronary would hardly seem the worst thing in the world.

What will strike many as precisely that has afflicted Tony Nicklinson, that tragic emblem of the insanely exaggerated reverence for sustaining life beyond its useful purpose. Since a stroke six years ago, Mr Nicklinson has endured "locked-in syndrome", the absolute paralysis made even more monstrous by the undimmed sharpness of its victims' minds. The saving grace of advanced dementia, after all, is the protection it offers sufferers from reality. "I've got good news and bad news," goes an old gag. "The bad news is that you've got cancer." "Jesus wept," says the patient. "What's the good news?" "You've got Alzheimer's, too. You'll know sod all about the cancer by Wednesday week."

Mr Nicklinson actively craves cancer, he explained via the blinking that is his only way of communicating, since he could refuse treatment and die. As it is, with no manual movement whatever, he cannot be taken to Switzerland to press a button and release lethal chemicals into his bloodstream. His wife, though desperate to free him, is too scared of a murder charge to do so.

Mr Nicklinson has won leave to ask the High Court to be released from an excruciation I am too cowardly to imagine. The court will no doubt express every sympathy, and be too cowardly to "cross the Rubicon" and redefine what constitutes murder in such cases. I hope I am wrong. But going by the judicial form book on bravely humane judgments, a red-robed successor to one of those black-capped darlings who sent people to the gallows will weightily conclude that human life must always be sacrosanct.

It is no such thing. If the avoidance of death were the state's paramount moral imperative, it would ban cars, outlaw the arms industry, and impose a crippling fat tax on doner kebabs. Worthwhile life and postponing death are not the same. There are infinitely worse fates, as Denis Healey appreciated, than being savaged by a dead sheep.

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