It’s tempting and some­times even darkly humorous to call living dying, but in truth when we reduce con­cepts down to the point that they’re inter­change­able, what pur­pose do they even serve? Living is not dying. Dying has to have some sub­stan­tial com­po­nent to dif­fer­en­tiate it from living or we’re just playing sophis­ti­cally with words and betraying dis­po­si­tions rather than com­mit­ting to ideas. Aging is also not dying, at least not all of it.

We used to assume life ended with breath. That was death. We expired. Now we know it doesn’t. We can restart res­pi­ra­tion. We use to assume life ended with car­diac arrest. Well, it doesn’t. We can restart hearts. Now, we use brain death as the marker, although we’ve dis­cov­ered that you can — with stem cells, bioac­tive mol­e­cules, brain and spinal cord stim­u­la­tion — bring brains back to life. It’s not espe­cially effec­tive and the bioeth­ical con­cerns should give us pause, but nothing can be ruled out.

So what is death? The only rea­son­able def­i­n­i­tion of death left to us is that having failed to resus­ci­tate any of the erst­while “vital” organs, that we reach a point, a crit­ical mass in global cell death. Glob­al­ized necrosis, cell death past the point of no return. That the DNA holding us together degen­er­ates to the point that it can no longer instruct cel­lular repli­ca­tion and cells begin to die at a rate faster than they repli­cate.

But dying is a process, right? Often a slow one. So wouldn’t we always be dying as we live, right up until we’re dead?

No. In fact, rates of cel­lular regen­er­a­tion and degen­er­a­tion are not con­sis­tent across lifes­pans. For the first twenty-five or so years, our cells are almost always simply regen­er­ating. There is nothing degen­er­a­tive in normal devel­op­ment up to that point. Past this point, cer­tain kinds of regen­er­a­tion slow or stop while others do not. In some sense, parts of us are there­after dying. But it isn’t really until one reaches the fifth decade of life that the DNA in our cells is actively degen­er­ating…

At that point, one can, I sup­pose, be said to be in the process of dying, although it seems rather more or less unnec­es­sary to tell someone who has already reached an age where they’re more than fully aware of their mor­tality, because their bodies are as good as a con­stant reminder that they’re degen­er­ating from the inside out.

And so, I dis­sent. Life is not death. Life is life. Death is death. And at least half of living, if not more, is not even dying.

The only thing that dis­rupts this pat­tern is dis­ease and dis­order. And not some uni­versal dis­order, because uni­versal dis­order would wipe the species out faster than you can say strippy fried bacon belly. No, dis­rup­tions to life are either inevitable over time due to growth that even­tu­ally peaks and becomes a gradual decay or some­thing external to the organism dis­rupts and accel­er­ates that process.

We have a respon­si­bility to be honest about the inevitability of the first, some­thing our society often fails to be honest about; but have as great or greater a respon­si­bility to the mit­i­gate the poten­tial­i­ties of the latter.

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