Would you want to know when you will die?
Published 05/01/2013 | 06:00
Scientists have discovered a 'death gene' that reveals the hour at which a person is most likely to die.
Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre in Boston found the gene variation during research into Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease.
But what if scientists found a gene that could tell not just the time but the exact date you were going to die?
Would you want to know just how long you had left? Or is ignorance bliss?
Says Liz Kearney
The internet is home to an infinite number of websites where you can while away the hours learning precisely nothing about anything.
Among the more eye-catching time-wasters are assorted 'death clock' sites like deathclock.com – proud to be the internet's friendly reminder that time is slipping away – and death-clock.org, which boasts that it's been predicting the demise of others since 2006.
If you've never been on these websites (and just what have you been doing with your time?), basically they ask you to enter your date of birth, your weight, and some additional health details like your BMI or your smoking status.
Then, helpfully – and free of charge! – the site does a quick calculation and reveals the date on which you're going to die.
It's just a joke, obviously. Because a ridiculous website, complete with images of a cartoon-ish grim reaper clutching a giant scythe or a huge, gothic-style clock ticking down the seconds, is hardly going to be able to tell when you're going to die, now is it?
Of course not. So why am I still too scared to type in my details? Why am I too frightened to hear what the internet might tell me, even though I know it's total rubbish?
So if scientists devised a real test that could accurately predict when you were going to die, I'm 100pc certain that I'd never take it.
I salute all those brave people who say they'd like to know. I suspect they're constructive, carpe diem types who already know that their time on earth is limited and are busy making the most of it so when the eventually shuffle off this mortal coil, they'll go out singing that they regret rien.
You know the types: they get up early and go to the gym before putting in a super-productive 10-hour day at the office, then fill their evenings training for marathons, learning Hebrew or knitting scarves for the needy.
For go-getters like that, having an ultimate deadline would just allow them to plan their timetables with even more rigid efficiency. They'd never, for instance, make the mistake of planning a meeting they wouldn't be able to attend due to the fact of them being already dead.
But not everyone is a deadline-driven go-getter. Some of us are anxious, proscratinating, self-doubting catastrophists who are not programmed to spend our every waking moments completing productive tasks.
We're too busy worrying about things that almost certainly will never happen. We already exist in worst-case scenario mode. Add a death date to that mix, and we'd be so paralysed by fear we might never get out of bed again.
Anxious types are already prone to the kind of self-pity that drives our friends and family crazy. They have to spend hours reassuring us that we'ren ot too fat, too poor, too stupid, too badly dressed, or too moany (although we know that last one's true). Just imagine how tough their job would be if they had to console us that we were dying every day for forty years.
The late writer Nuala O'Faolain, in the heartbreaking radio interview she gave after she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, spoke of the amazing human capacity to deny, despite all evidence to the contrary, that we are mortal, finite beings.
It is precisely this magical mind trick, she argued, that allows us to go about our business, living happily from day to day. For her, that magic was dispelled the minute the doctors diagnosed her with terminal cancer.
'I think there's a wonderful rule of life that means that we do not consider our own mortality," she said. "I know we seem to, and remember, 'man thou art but dust', but I don't believe we do. I believe there is an absolute difference between knowing that you are likely to die, let's say within the next year, and not knowing when you are going to die – an absolute difference."
Once she knew that her days were numbered, the things she delighted in – reading, music – were stripped of their pleasures. Might she have felt the same way if she'd been given five years, or 10, or 20? It's possible.
And I'm afraid that's just how I should feel. That the joy would be stripped from all of life's pleasures, that every happy occasion would be in shadow, that the whole world would seem like nothing but a clock, ticking loudly and counting down the seconds until my number was up.
Of course, it already is just a clock. It's just that we see where the hands are at.
And that suits me just fine.
Says John Costello
Just days after Niall Quinn scored against the Dutch in Italia '90, putting Ireland through to the knockout stages of the World Cup, I suffered a massive asthma attack.
I was 18 and had stopped breathing in the back of an ambulance as it raced towards Beaumont Hospital. Even though I struggled with every ounce of strength to breathe, my asthma was slowly strangling me. It was a battle I would soon lose.
My breathing became shallower and shallower, despite the intensity of my effort to take in air, until there was no more.
Like a fish out of water I gulped, I twisted and I turned, but to no avail. I still vividly remember slipping into unconsciousness and being engulfed by darkness.
If it were not for the adrenaline injections they stabbed into my chest and the speedy work of the doctors in A&E I would not be here.
This experience gave me a new perspective on life. After spending a week lying on a hospital bed recovering, I returned home promising myself to live for the moment.
The first few weeks I would get up at 6am just to appreciate the sunrise. I no longer took for granted everyday things because I had experienced first hand how they could vanish at any given time on any given day.
My mortality became a very real thing. But rather than fear it, I embraced it and became very unafraid of death.
In fact, I came to realise death gets a very bad press. When it comes to phobias, fear of death is one of the most widespread. But while our culture has a predominately negative attitude towards the scythe of the grim reaper, if someone asked me now if I would like a deadline for my death, my response would be – absolutely.
And it appears the boffins have come close. They have managed to identify what they are calling the 'death gene', helping pinpoint the time of day a person is most likely to die.
But to be honest I am still hopeful medical advances will soon let us know – if we choose – not only the time, but also the date of our swansong.
They tell us there are two certainties in life – death and taxes. So just like the taxman sets us a deadline every year, why shouldn't we be told our exact expiry date. What have we got to worry about? If you believe in the afterlife then it is a new beginning, and if you don't, well then it's a case of 'that's all folks!'
Fear of death stifles life. Without darkness we could never truly understand light. Without winter we would never look forward to summer. And so it goes – without death we can never genuinely appreciate life.
One of America's first authors on success, Napoleon Hill, wrote: "A goal is a dream with a deadline." So if you want to 'do' rather than just 'dream', knowing when you are going to die would ultimately help you live.
So, if we knew when the bell for last orders was going to chime and had to embrace the fact that death is coming for us, we would be forced to live life to the full.
Such a concept is nothing new. When a victorious general paraded through the streets of ancient Rome in a long procession celebrating his success in battle, he always rode with a servant by his side. The job of his underling was to constantly whisper in the general's ear: "Memento mori. Memento mori."
The words of warning translate as: "Remember you will die. Remember you will die."
The general was constantly being reminded that despite being at his peak today, tomorrow could bring his downfall. The belief was, in order to continue to excel, the conqueror had to be constantly aware of his mortality.
It is not dissimilar in sentiment to the Latin phrase 'carpe diem' or 'seize the day'. It is the prospect of our ultimate demise that pushes us to achieve the things we want and need.
But even though death is a fact of life, most procrastinate in the false belief that there will always be a tomorrow. Not knowing when we will die means we will always fail to get the most out of life.
So, to paraphrase the novelist Rita Mae Brown, a deadline for death may to some be a morbidly negative inspiration, but it is better than no inspiration at all.