Death and David Nelson

I read this morning actor David Nelson died on the 11th, complications of colon cancer.  I’m a little slow.  I don’t follow celebrity news that closely.  But I will say his death, at 74, struck a note.  Actually a couple of them. 

David was the last of a family of actors appearing in the long-standing TV series, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett.”   That light-hearted series lasted 22 years, and I grew up taking in most of it.  David Nelson and his long-deceased younger brother and rock star, Ricky, were a big part of my weekly entertainment, as were the parents, Harriett and Ozzie Nelson.  

I was also struck by David’s age, which is a fairly young age to die these days.  Or so I thought.

Last year I kept a selected list of deaths.  By the last death in December I had 45 names.  The deceased were mostly Americans I remembered well.   One was a Russian, Anatoly Dobrynin, the former ambassador to the U.S.    And another was a person I did not recognize by name, Geraldine Hoff Doyle, who was a model for “Rosie the Riveter” of World War II note, that I remembered very well.

Just glancing at my list I was startled at first by the number of men and women who died in their 90s.  I counted 14, almost a third of my list.  Or 31 percent.  The 90s group was surpassed only by the 18 who lived into their 80s.  That comes to 32, or 71 percent, on my list who reached the age of 80 or above.  That was amazing.  But I had one more meaningful calculation to go, average age.

As I began calculating this morning, I estimated the average age of death on my list would be in the low 80s or at least in the upper 70s.  After all I had only 12 more deaths to figure in.  Only five in their 70s, four in the 60s, two in the 50s and, finally, the actor Gary Coleman, at age 42 the youngest.

I was soon taken aback by the realization that David Nelson, 74, had exceeded the average on my list by  more than a year and a half.  That longevity came to only 72.4 years, and decidedly under the national average of about 78. Deaths of particularly Coleman, the basketball player Maurice Lucas (58), soul singer Teddy Pendergrass (59), Elizabeth Edwards (61) and actresses Jill Clayburgh (66) and Lynn Redgrave (67) had brought the numbers back to earth.

Still, if I may draw a generalization from my selective list, it appears that if you can somehow get into your 70s without serious disease or accident, you have a better than even chance of living well into your 80s, a period I like to call the “new old age.” 

And should you take good care of yourself, you can perhaps reach the 90s as did others on my list:  basketball coach John Wooden and musician Mitch Miller (both 99), actor Kevin McCarthy (96), actress Barbara Billingsley (94),  newsman Daniel Schorr (93), baseball manager Bobby Bragan, actor John Forsythe, singer Lena Horne, Senator Robert Byrd and baseball pitcher Bob Feller (all 92), writer J. D. Salinger (91) and politician Stewart Udall, baseball manager Ralph Houk and Dobrynin (al 90). 

David Nelson is the first name on my 2011 death list.  I hope his “young” age is not a trend downward.

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