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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: April 2024

Morbidity in Our 70s and a Modest Proposal for Response

Francis Henry Morrison


  • The difference between morbidity and mortality and how both can affect your career.
  • Ways to avoid thinking about one’s morbidities. 
Morbidity in Our 70s and a Modest Proposal for Response Nakic

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In the recesses of my memory, I can hear him still, my former estate planning partner, proclaiming to all who would listen to his observation that: “Lots of folks enter their 70’s doing well with their career, health, and family, but relatively few exit their 70’s in the same shape (and perhaps not at all).” He was talking about his observations of morbidity (condition of suffering from a disease or condition) and mortality (the state of being subject to death) of hundreds of clients over a long career. And they were the result of keeping track of their lives, because, more often than not, he or our firm handled the estate administration—a very lucrative aspect of the practice.

He never used the word “morbidity” but he meant it when he called out the collection of things that life does to us—examples include COVID-19, dementia, Alzheimer's, cancer of the brain, pancreas, ovaries and breast, cardiovascular disease including stroke, depression, suicide and accidental death--and many more. Conditions of morbidity reach us all, often cutting short careers and relationships and resulting in our death. And we often learn about the morbidity of the accomplished and acclaimed among us through their obituaries. After all, there is an intuitive causal connection between morbidity and mortality.

A few immutable background facts may provide some context for this discussion. Reported death rates by age group and sex in 2020 per 100,000 of the population were as follows: for ages 65-70, 2,581.7 for males and 1,626.8 for females; and for ages 75-84 5,937 for males and 4,261.1 for females. These rates substantially exceeded the rates for age groups 45-54 and 55-64. And, relatedly for our purposes, life expectancy for men and women in the U.S. in 2020 was 77.28 years.      

And US life expectancy has fallen in recent years in the U.S. after decades of growth, much driven by advances in medicine and resulting in improved lifestyles.

Morbidities of the Famous, Accomplished, and Acclaimed Whose Reported Morbidities Led to Their Deaths in Their 70’s.

Recent 2024 obituaries of accomplished men and women illustrate the operation of morbidity in a few specific lives. They report, by definition, deaths occurring in their 70’s—the group of clients my former partner was talking about.

Richard Lewis, (aka the “Prince of Pain”), called a “Fretful Comic with Madness in His Method” by the New York Times, died at age 76 of a heart attack on February 27, 2024. He suffered other morbidities: he announced last year that he had Parkinson’s disease, was a recovering alcoholic, and underwent multiple back and rotator cuff surgeries in the late 2010s. He last performed live in 2018. He was born on June 29, 1947, a date that caught my eye because I was born four days later on July 3, 1947. His obituary chronicled his life and career requiring a full page of newsprint. (The New York Times, Obituaries, Friday, March 1, 2024.)

Janice Burgess, an American woman of color, died in hospice care on March 2, 2024, of breast cancer. She was a television executive, screenwriter, producer of Nickelodeon, and creator of “The Backyardigans.” (The New York Times, Obituaries, March 5, 2024.)

David Mixner, (political strategist) died at age 77 from complications of his morbidity--long--term COVID-- on March 11, 2024. A gay American, he persuaded President Reagan to oppose Proposition 6 in California which proposed that gay men and lesbians be barred from working in California public schools, which was soundly defeated. He urged President Clinton to end the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military (it happened in 2011). And he was one of four national co-chairs of the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam—a series of protests in the fall of 1969. (The New York Times, Obituaries, Thursday, March 14, 2024.)

Others who have died in their 70s recently after or during careers involving accomplishment and acclaim due to various morbidities include: David Bordwell, hailed as cinema’s best writer, died on February 29, 2024, at age 76 of pulmonary fibrosis; Rabbi Ellen Bernstein, died at age 70 of colon cancer on February 27, 2024, and wrote books tying ecology to the Hebrew Bible; John Walker, who died on February 2, 2024 at age 74 of head injuries caused by a fall—a technology entrepreneur and polymath who founded an organization that brought AutoCAD software to the design and architectural world; and Chris Mortensen, who died at 72 on March 11, 2024 NFL insider and ESPN reporter who had been treated for throat cancer. (The New York Times, Obituaries, Thursday, March 11, 2024.)

The idea that morbidities increase in late adulthood and cause the greatest decline in the 70’s is not an epiphany. “The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, Volume 72, Issue 4, April 1, 2017” at 13. Well-known and accomplished Americans suffered from these morbidities and declined and died: Johnny Cash, died at the age of 71 in 2003; he struggled with drug and alcohol addiction—worked until nearly the end of his life; John Wayne, died in 1979 at age 72—struggled with cancer for 10 years; Dennis Hopper, died of prostate cancer at age 74 in 2010; Mohammad Ali, died in 2016 at age of 74; diagnosed in 1982 with Parkinson’s disease; Aretha Franklin, died at age 76 of pancreatic cancer; Lucille Ball, died at age 77 of an aortic dissection; Elizabeth Taylor, an actress died at age 79 of congestive heart failure;  Johnny Carson, died at age 79 of emphysema; Luciano Pavarotti, singer, died at age 71 of pancreatic cancer; Dean Martin, singer, and performer, died at age 78 of kidney ailments.

Living With Morbidities: A Modest Proposal

Coming full circle from my former partner’s observations of client morbidities in their 70’s, I too have a morbidity story to tell. First, during my 70s (I will turn 77 this year), I have amassed the following morbidities: three major surgical joint replacements due to severe arthritic changes in my legs, hips, and knees; a radical prostatectomy for genetically acquired prostate cancer; and maybe well-controlled blood sugar levels and blood pressure through medication, weight loss, diet and exercise. Those morbidities are each associated with risks of actual mortality.

While I know that each of us will achieve mortality (not immortality), my strategy has been to stay active—walk three miles plus per day, exercise my brain with serious (historical topics) readings, writing for VOE, Experience, and perhaps more broadly—I think I might have a book in me about my trial career. Because there is dementia in my family, I regard my brain exercise activity as my most important response to my own morbidity. And the rest of that response includes retirement, world travel (assuming that there is a safe way to do so), and enjoying my wife and grandchildren and 101-year-old mother.