Eat Well, Die Anyway: Life Expectancy and the Pleasures of Living

Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.”

Mark Twain

Over the years, my diet has transformed. Raised in Cumberland, Rhode Island during the Howdy Doody/Captain Kangaroo/1950-1960s era in a primarily Irish Catholic household, we fully embraced the modern miracle of post-War technology, canned goods and frozen food.

While we were always well fed, one just has to look around for the dearth of restaurants featuring Irish cuisine (other than Guinness, Fish & Chips, or Shepherd’s pie) to appreciate the somewhat uninspired nature of such food.

Once I became independent, I embraced the wonders of drive-thru fast food, pizza delivery, and, as many of my friends will attest, beans and Kool-Aid when I had to cook or lacked funds for even a hamburger.

Once I was married, my wife began the slow, arduous process of introducing me to fresh vegetables, salads, and other items I had heard of but never consumed.


To put this in perspective, on one of our first Thanksgiving dinners together, my wife made cranberry sauce. I didn’t recognize it. Cranberry sauce, in its natural state, has symmetry. It is shaped like a tube and has grooves circling it. This looked like a pile of half digested berries, something one would see along a trail in the woods of New Hampshire.

It was black magic.

“Not how long, but how well you have lived is the main thing.”

— Seneca

But after several years, I began to tolerate (the alternative was starving) then almost enjoy fresh vegetables. I started to cook something other than with a microwave, a benefit of attending some cooking classes at Johnson & Wales. The culinary world opened up.

The primary purpose of a healthy diet is, of course, the prolongation of life. Thinking of this got me wondering when does one reach a point where this goal is mitigated by the inevitable conclusion of all life.

In a nutshell, when is eating well an exercise in futility?

So I looked at life expectancy and actuarial tables. (That there are people in the world who write and work with such statistics terrifies me. That they can survive without being bored to death—thus skewing the numbers—is amazing.)

 Without getting into all the mitigating details and differences by country (see risk above) based on the Social Security Administration table, a male child born in 2017 has a life expectancy of 75.97 years, a female child, 80.96.  But the number that intrigued me most was death probability.

At birth, a male child has a 0.006304% chance of dying before their first birthday, females 0.005229%. From then on, your chances of survival increase until you reach the age of 10. Then it begins a long slow decrease toward the final curtain. I’m sure there are mounds of research studies explaining this, but I suspect that it involves two things, the first hints of adolescence and making one’s own food decisions.

At ten, there was never the slightest chance I would select an apple or banana over a Peanut Butter and Marshmallow fluff sandwich. Or a salad over an Anchovy Pizza. (For those of you who just grimaced over the word Anchovy, you are heathens and infidels and have zero appreciation of fine food.)

If one looks at the chart ( you would see the decreasing number of years remaining at various ages. All of which leads me back to my original point.

At twenty-one years of age, eating Anchovy Pizza and a gallon of ice cream every day, no matter how tempting, would likely knock one’s life expectancy down a notch. The old adage about not buying any long novels to read might apply much sooner.

But what about at, to pick a random age, sixty-four? What effect might a dish of ice cream a day cost in life expectancy? At sixty-four, which by coincidence is my current age, I have eighteen years left according to the chart (although I plan on taking advantage of some Irish lineage in my family from my great grandmother who lived to ninety-three and drank  a bit of Irish Whiskey and a beer almost every day.)

So a dish of ice cream a day at twenty-one has a serious potential cost. At sixty-four, it is a much-reduced cost and I think it worth the risk. In the interest of full disclosure, I have always enjoyed Spam and Deviled Ham, not to mention anchovies, which I believe can be a fountain of eternal life so I have some built in reserves more than adequate to support my ice cream diet.

Now if I can only find a way to convince my family this is a sound and necessary course of actions to make my progression on the actuarial table more enjoyable.


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2 thoughts on “Eat Well, Die Anyway: Life Expectancy and the Pleasures of Living

  1. Joe, I turned 60 this year and have survived Frosted Flakes, formerly Sugared Frosted Flaked, Rice Crispies with a teaspoon of sugar and whole milk ! I might also add that a grew up with a Grandmother who did all the cooking…..her favorite sauce was butter…..she lived 93 butter filled years !
    Thank you for writing this, Rhonda

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