Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Accept death to promote health

We all die and, despite some fanciful ideas to the contrary, we will, as a species, continue to do so. Our daily routines tend to distract us from this fact. However, because death is inevitable, we need to think about how we can live healthy lives, without ignoring how they end.

Once we accept that we are going to die, how we spend our money and our time on health begins to shift. At core, we should aspire to die healthy. That means focusing our energy on creating a world that maximizes health right up until the moment we leave it, rather than one where we invest our resources into the last few months of life, ignoring the factors that keep us healthy all the years prior. This would represent a radical shift in how we think about our limited health investment dollars. Perhaps death can help focus our mind on living better, on the conditions that we need to create in order to generate health.

Of course, we should not neglect the experience of dying. We all wish to die with dignity, yet we do little, in advance, to influence the circumstances of our deaths. Two out of three Americans do not have advance directives that guide what treatments they receive if they are sick, and they cannot communicate the end-of-life care that they want. Engaging in a dialogue about how we manage the dying process can help us correct this oversight.

It is also important to remember those who are left. The dead leave behind the grieving, who can experience a burden of poor health that is directly linked to loss of their loved one. The sudden, unexpected death of a loved one is, for example, the largest contributor to posttraumatic stress disorder  in populations. Death leaves behind lonely older adults, now socially isolated, placing them at higher risk of dying sooner. In this way, death creates a population health challenge for the living, one that is foreseeable and, perhaps, preventable.

Our squeamishness in talking about death is entirely natural. But it remains our collective role to elevate issues that influence the health of populations; death is one of those issues. Perhaps recognizing the inevitability of death can guide us toward ways in which we can live healthier, die with dignity, and ensure our loved ones are supported when we pass on.

Featured image via Pixabay.

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