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‘I am old enough to die’: Barbara Ehrenreich questions our longevity obsession

When is a medical procedure or preventative screening counterproductive? How much time should we spend in the gym or fixating on the latest diet? The new book “Natural Causes” calls into question a number of seeming certainties of modern life and our quest to delay death. Jeffrey Brown talks with author Barbara Ehrenreich.

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  • William Brangham:

    Finally tonight, a new book that examines our society's obsession with wellness and extending our lives as long as possible.

    It's a book that suggests we might be better off accepting the inevitable.

    Jeffrey Brown has this latest edition to the "NewsHour" bookshelf.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    When is a medical procedure the best approach and when counterproductive? How much time should we spend in the gym or fixating on the latest diet for healthier living?

    A new book calls into question a number of seeming certainties of modern life. It's called "Natural Causes."

    Barbara Ehrenreich is author of more than a dozen books, including her bestselling look at the working poor, "Nickel and Dimed."

    She joins me now.

    And welcome to you.

  • Barbara Ehrenreich:

    Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You are hitting at some — some big things, presumed — the presumed science of medicine today, the culture of health.

    In broad terms, what do you see going on?

  • Barbara Ehrenreich:

    Well, when I started this, I was observing for years how people my age and quite a bit younger were spending more and more time on their bodies, or their mind bodies, to put it fashionably.

    And then the big-time filler for a lot of older people, preventive tests. You're spending so much time prolonging your life, or trying to prolong it, that you don't have much time to live it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You're not denying that some procedures and screening tests can save lives, are you?

  • Barbara Ehrenreich:

    When you take a well person, like myself, and say, now we have to test you for this cancer, that cancer and the other thing, then I began to rebel, in my own case.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    This is, to some degree, a personal issue for you, and you write about it, that you hit a point where you realized — and you use a kind of a provocative term — you were old enough to die.

    Explain what you meant.

  • Barbara Ehrenreich:

    That's right.

    If I were tested now and told that I had cancer, I wouldn't go through the treatments. And I have been there, done that, wouldn't do it. I'm old enough to die. And I'm old enough to keep eating, putting butter on my bread and other things that some people think are terribly unhealthy.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And, therefore, it means that you're not going to worry, worry so much, or work hard at — you also talk about still going to the gym, right, which is a big part of our culture these days, and you have been part of that.

  • Barbara Ehrenreich:

    I'm very much a part of it.

    But the reason I do it is that, if I don't do it, I don't feel good and I get cranky. So, it's not that I think, well, if I put 30 minutes in on the treadmill, I will live for three more minutes at the end of my life.

    No.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, you see other people doing the opposite, making it too much like work.

  • Barbara Ehrenreich:

    That they are very anxious. There's a lot of anxiety about keeping it up, or die.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes. Yes.

    You're trying to reframe the questions we should ask ourselves?

  • Barbara Ehrenreich:

    Some of the changes we need are not in ourselves, in our own bodies.

    We don't control, obviously, everything, like the pollutants in the air we're breathing and the water we're drinking. But I have read so many of these self-help books on — quote — "successful aging."

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right.

  • Barbara Ehrenreich:

    And they say it's up to you, and if you start being frail or disabled or something as you age, that's your own damn fault.

    And, no, it's going to happen.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's not as up to us as we think.

  • Barbara Ehrenreich:

    We're going to die.

    And no matter what you do, you cannot head that off. And I would like I would like it if we could have more of a conversation about that, because that is a big taboo subject.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Some of these things — I know from reading earlier books, some of these things go to longtime concerns for you, right?

  • Barbara Ehrenreich:

    Oh, yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Societal issues, issues of class, who can afford some of the outcomes that are so much in our society today.

  • Barbara Ehrenreich:

    Yes.

    And I talk in book about the huge differences between the working class and the elite. You know, if you're an ordinary worker, wellness means one thing.

    I really think we have to rethink our priorities in this country, as a country where we have this overtesting and everything of the insured people. And then, at the other end of the social spectrum, we have had children die because their parents can't afford a dentist to pull an infected tooth.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The new book is "Natural Causes."

    Barbara Ehrenreich, thank you very much.

  • Barbara Ehrenreich:

    My pleasure.

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