Is it worth living a long life?

A recent medical warning that using too many sleeping  pills may result in a shorter life has had me puzzled: how many people would really rather have years of sleeping badly just in the hope of having a longer old age? When Cleopatra (according to Shakespeare, at least) said she loved figs better than she loved long life, she was assuming everyone loved the latter.

Is it worth living a long life? But the average age was presumably a lot lower than it is now, and maybe those who did make it into very old age had what Macbeth said should accompany old age: "honour, love, obedience, troops of friends".

Nowadays we do mostly live longer, but the extremes of old age are hardly a picnic, even if you avoid ending up with dementia in a bad care home. The chance of enduring more of such years would hardly, I'd have thought, be an inducement to deprive yourself of anything. I remember reading that Jeanne Calment, at the ripe age of 116 and the oldest woman in the world, complained that her doctor wouldn't let her have her port any more; I couldn't imagine what he was thinking of: was he worried that she wouldn't make it to 117?

I realise that most health advice is sound and sensible and I shouldn't denounce it – but I approve of the sensible Italian scorn for those who choose vivere da malato per morire sano – to live like an invalid in order to die healthy.

Powered by article was written by Katharine Whitehorn, for The Observer on Sunday 25th November 2012 00.05 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010