Should Parents Find out How Long They’re Going to Live? Of Course They Should*

Michelle Riddell

I’m neither a glass-half-full nor a glass-half-empty person. I’m more of an exact-volume-of-the-liquid-in-the-glass type. I’m the person who wants to know how many calories are in the entire package of cookies I’m about to eat and isn’t deterred after finding out they contain more than my recommended daily allowance.

I apply formulaic logic to every aspect of my life, and I’ve never subscribed to willful denial of any sort. So, when I heard that the TeloMe Company was offering its genetic telomere testing to the general public, I was intrigued.

To understand the significance of this test being publicly available, think of the trillions of cells that comprise a human body. Each cell will undergo mitosis (cellular division) 40 to 60 times before it dies. Each time a cell divides, the chromosomes housing its genetic material also divide.

Telomeres are the protective, structural caps on the ends of these chromosomes, buffering the DNA within. With every mitosis cycle, the telomeres fray and shorten until eventually they disappear. Once the telomeres are gone, the chromosomes are exposed, and the cell, unable to divide, dies. 

Genetic telomere testing is a blood test that measures telomere length. It is designed to reveal a person’s biological age, independent of chronological age. Biological age evaluates changes in the body’s physical structure and organ systems, as well as deterioration in sensory perception and motor skills. Chronological age simply notes the years since birth. The two aren’t always the same.

The telomere test analyzes the average length of an individual’s telomeres, theoretically providing insight into health, lifespan, propensity for disease, and most importantly, preventative lifestyle options.

Essentially, this test tells you how much longer you have to live. But first, before delving into the plethora of legal, fiduciary, logistical, and ethical implications of such information, the primary question – the core of the matter – is whether or not you want to know.

As a parent, a partner, and a health-conscious individual, I want to know.

Telomeres, like other parts of our anatomy, are amalgams of several factors, including ancestry, lifestyle, and outlying stressors. While research suggests that our genetic health is largely predetermined, we are still the catalysts of our own destiny. All is never lost, when it comes to the amazing resilience of the human body.

My grandmother smoked from age 20 to 50 and lived to be 99 years old. The moral of her story isn’t that she smoked and lived a long life, but that she lived nearly half a century after quitting. Taking the telomere test is like looking into the future from your current trajectory. If it’s heading in the wrong direction, there is time to change course.

The real question, as I see it, is what have you got to lose?

Just as we all hope (and expect) to live a long and healthy life, we all fear (and yet, accept on some level) our own impending death. It’s human nature. Fear of death is what keeps us alive. But fear is also the last straggler in our ever-evolving psyche and should not be catered to – especially if it impedes proactivity.

The logic behind avoiding this test is similar to the logic of postponing a mammogram because you’re afraid of being diagnosed with cancer, and that logic is flawed.

Consider the worst case scenario: You take the telomere test and find out that your body is older than its years. So what? Learning the results hasn’t altered the course of your life. Learning the results doesn’t change 30 years of poor nutrition or, conversely, good eating habits.

Vital statistics and medical test results are facts; your knowledge of them is incidental. What can alter the course of your life – doubtless for the better – is what you do with this knowledge. Let science be your guide.

debate club

Should Parents Find Out How Long They’re Going to Live? No Way!

Katie Schorr

As the kind of person who, at every doctor’s appointment, elects not to know her weight by cheerfully shouting to whomever is weighing me, “YOU CAN JUST WRITE IT DOWN, YOU DON’T NEED TO TELL ME, THANK YOU,” you can guess where I stand on the topic of knowing my lifespan.

If my clothes fit and my body can do things and looks to be in fine working order, I don’t have any use for a number on a scale – a number that will only compound my already anxious thought patterns. I can guess my weight, using context clues, memories of past weights, and some magical realism. The blurriness of that guess is what keeps me feeling both content in my skin and compelled to occasionally hit up a yoga class or sprint to the subway station or not eat all of the brownies.

The same theory goes for the year my body gives out. I’ve got a vague sense of when I’m going to kick it (based on the lifespans of my grandparents and wishful thinking), and that fantasy keeps me hopeful and also stops me from getting too cocky.

The fact that I have a child makes me no more interested in knowing when my days are numbered, in part because I am not sure what I would do with a tragic revelation, say that I only had a few more years left with him. I’m not confident that I’m one of those people for whom a death sentence would be liberating, allowing me to exist entirely in the moment, taking risks I never before considered, like skydiving or singing terrible pop songs loudly in public places.

Nor am I confident a death sentence would better my parenting, compelling me to savor every last second with my son, to tell him I love him more than I already do, to impart any more wisdom than I’m already dredging up on a daily basis, to prepare him for my being gone. I’m not convinced anything could prepare me for that. 

Funnily enough, my husband wrote a novel, “Denton Little’s Deathdate” (part “Back to the Future”, part “Superbad”, part philosophical musing on death), about this very conundrum, so I’ve had years to not simply stew on this, but talk it out in GREAT detail.

Denton’s story is set in a world where everyone knows the day they’re going to die – a sci-fi conceit, for sure, although…perhaps not for long – and when the book begins, 17-year-old Denton’s deathdate is 24 hours away, on the day of his senior prom. His parents have known his fate since birth, but have protected Denton from the tragedy he was born into by making his abbreviated life a very normal one.

Denton’s march toward the end of his life is goofy and unsettling and very funny and very sad and, without telling you what happens, I finished the book feeling more certain than ever that, if I could help it, I would never want to know my deathdate, nor my child’s.

Even without that knowledge, I feel plenty grateful for the life I’ve got. I read about the horrors the people of Syria endure daily and about the realities escaped by so many immigrants, undocumented and otherwise, in our country right now, and I cannot fathom how stupidly lucky I am. The lovely and terrifying uncertainty of every day as I know it in a world that is cruel to so many is inspiring enough to make me want to live without regret or fear.

Death is already imminent. Why make it more so?

*The views expressed in this article are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect those of Parent.Co or those of its sponsors.