X-Message-Number: 15161
From: "Mark Plus" <>
Subject: "Who wants to live forever?"
Date: Fri, 22 Dec 2000 08:34:21 -0800



Prolonging life

Who wants to live for ever?
Dec 21st 2000
From The Economist print edition

Average life expectancy has risen greatly. The span of individual life has 
not. Would it be a good thing if it did? No

ARE you hoping for a long life? Thought so. Are you looking forward to 
growing old? Thought not. Man has wanted one without the other for thousands 
of years, and has invariably been disappointed. Cleopatra is said to have 
bathed in asses  milk to stay young and beautiful, but did not live long 
enough to find out if it worked in old age. The Spanish explorer Juan Ponce 
de Leon was more famous for his search for the Fountain of Youth than for 
discovering Florida in 1513. He never did find the rejuvenating spring that 
the natives had told him of, and died from a poisoned Indian arrow a few 
years later.

The legend of the Fountain of Youth may have originated in northern India. 
It had reached Europe by the 7th century, and was widely known there in the 
Middle Ages. When Lucas Cranach the Elder was 74, he painted a famous 
picture of the miraculous spring, with wrinkled old women going in at one 
end and young beauties coming out at the other. Writers have constantly 
imagined worlds where people lived to prodigious ages while holding on to 
their youthful looks and vigour by various means, mostly foul. Oscar Wilde s 
Dorian Gray kept a picture of himself in the attic, on which his excesses 
were visited while he himself remained ever young and handsome though the 
arrangement, and Mr Gray, came to a sticky end. In the real world too, 
people are prepared to try all kinds of disgusting things, from mud baths to 
injections of monkey glands, in the hope of staying younger longer.

If only

You might think they no longer needed to bother. People today generally live 
much longer than ever before. Neanderthal man could expect to live to about 
20. Things got better, but only very gradually: by the middle of the 18th 
century AD, in Western Europe, life expectancy at birth averaged about 30 
years. Now, that figure for the world as a whole is about 65, thanks to the 
past two centuries  improvements in living conditions, public health and 
medical care. A baby born today in affluent North America or Western Europe 
can expect to live to 75-80. He (or she) has an excellent chance of avoiding 
heavy and prematurely ageing manual labour, and enjoying a comfortable 
lifestyle. His biggest problem will probably be to resist the temptation to 
eat too much, exercise too little and become obese. But if he looks after 
himself, he should remain in fair shape for most of his greatly extended 
time on earth.

Lengthening lifespan
Yet, though life expectancy has risen sharply, in quite a short time, the 
individual human lifespan set by nature has remained much the same through 
most of recorded history. It was even if mainly in theory three score and 
ten in Biblical times, and it isn t much more now. Most people died of one 
thing or another long before their allotted span was up.

Even in the depths of history a few people lived to a great age. Researchers 
reckon that Rameses II, who ruled ancient Egypt some 3,250 years ago, may 
have survived into his 90s. So did the Greek dramatist Sophocles 800 years 
later (and, to judge from some of his late writings, felt it quite long 

His countryman and near-contemporary, the philosopher Plato, who lived to 
80, shrewdly pointed out one reason for such unusual longevity in  The 
Republic . An old man is told by a younger friend:

I rather suspect that people generally think old age sits lightly upon your 
shoulders, not because of your cheerful disposition, but because you are 
rich. Wealth is known to be a great comforter.

The big achievement of modern times is that, in developed countries at 
least, most people are now well enough off to reach the age they were 
designed for. No longer do they die in large numbers in the first year of 
life, or later from infectious diseases, or suffer malnutrition, or work 
themselves to death (except in Japan, where karoshi, suicide due to 
overwork, is a familiar end; but at least it is voluntary). Barring 
accidents, therefore, most people now go on until they die of one of the 
afflictions of ripe old age, such as cardiovascular disease or cancer. 
Britain s queen now sends out ten times as many congratulatory messages to 
centenarians as she did when she came to the throne nearly half a century 

But although on average people in affluent countries now will live far 
longer than their equivalents even a century or two ago, individual 
lifespans will not be huge by historical standards. Granted, there are 
regular reports of healthy 130- or 150-year-olds being discovered in some 
remote mountain region in Eastern Europe, living on yogurt and garlic, 
herding goats and fathering children at an age when most people would have 
been dead long ago. But invariably the evidence to support their claim turns 
out to be less than solid. The oldest documented person in history was 
Jeanne Calment, a Frenchwoman from Arles, who died in 1997 at the age of 122 
years and 164 days. She was old enough to have met Vincent van Gogh, in her 
younger days (or so she said he never painted her). By all accounts she 
remained reasonably fit and compos mentis until quite close to her death, 
and appeared to enjoy her long life.

Longer health, not just longer life
The current emphasis in age research is on what experts call  compression of 
morbidity : finding ways to ensure that the rising number of people who 
achieve the apparent maximum lifespan do so in tolerable health, not just 
after extra years of decrepitude. Much of the advice handed out is simple 
common sense: adopt a healthy lifestyle, eat and drink in moderation, do not 
smoke, take regular exercise but don t overdo it. These rules are often 
flouted, sometimes without apparent ill effect. In a speech at his 70th 
birthday celebration, Mark Twain outlined his own survival strategy:

I have made it a rule to go to bed when there wasn t anybody left to sit up 
with; and I have made it a rule to get up when I had to. In the matter of 
diet, I have been persistently strict in sticking to the things which didn t 
agree with me, until one or the other of us got the best of it. I have made 
it a rule never to smoke more than one cigar at a time. As for drinking, 
when the others drink I like to help. I have never taken any exercise, 
except sleeping and resting, and I never intend to take any. Exercise is 

He lived to 75. In 1910, that was much longer than most Americans.

But even for those who stick to the rules, all that a healthy lifestyle can 
do is to improve their chances of staying in reasonable shape for their age; 
it will not slow down the ageing process. Nor yet, for all the hype for this 
hormone treatment, that vitamin supplement and yonder course of injections, 
would any of the patent remedies so widely and profitably peddled. The only 
experiments on laboratory animals that have definitely shown a 
life-lengthening effect have involved subjecting rats and mice to a severely 
restricted diet. The less they eat, short of actual starvation, and the 
longer they go on doing so, the longer they live. But they have less fun 
than rodents on a normal diet. Ravenous rats reproduce less, and ravenous 
mice not at all.

Whether that method would work on humans, no one knows. They are so 
long-lived that any experiment would have to continue for many years to 
prove anything. Getting enough volunteers, and preventing them cheating, 
would prove mighty difficult. And suppose that severely restricting food 
intake did indeed make people too last longer? If their urges also turned 
out to be affected like those of rodents, what a great life it would be and 
extra decades of it. That, in Greek myth, was the fate of Tithonus, lover of 
Aurora, the dawn: he asked for immortal life, and got it but he d forgotten 
to ask for youth as well.

Poor Tithonus, poor Aurora

A different approach might work. To some extent longevity is an inherited 
trait. Experiments with that old friend of science, the fruit fly, have 
shown that selective breeding for long life can produce significantly 
longer-lasting flies. But again, that would not be much help to humans: we 
have long life-cycles, so the results might be centuries ahead even were we 
ready to choose potentially long-lived mates rather than visibly 
well-endowed or well-heeled ones.

What, though, if instead of selective breeding for longer-lived stock, the 
chosen method were to be genetic manipulation? Now that the sequencing of 
the human genome has been completed, all sorts of gene-therapy treatments 
are beginning to look possible. The process of ageing is a complex matter in 
which many different genes appear to be involved, but in time it may become 
possible to use gene therapy to slow down ageing, if not eliminate it.

Accidents will happen
Not that, even if ageing could be stopped altogether, people would stop 
dying. Accidents will happen. Age researchers reckon that if people were 
able indefinitely to preserve their maximum health and vigour (which in 
developed countries is reached around the age of ten or eleven), they would 
on average live for about 1,200 years; while one in about 1,000 would last 
for 10,000 years. He might get a bit lonely as all his friends bowed out. In 
the end, though, the incidence of death for mankind as a whole would still 
be the same as ever: 100%. Life is an invariably fatal disease.

Meanwhile, having individuals around for hundreds or even thousands of years 
would require some radical adjustments. Even without such innovations, the 
latest UN estimates suggest that, on fairly conservative assumptions about 
birth and death rates, today s world population of just over 6 billion may 
rise to 8.9 billion by 2050; by when, instead of today s 600m people over 
60, there will be about 2 billion roughly one in four of all mankind, 
worldwide, and in Europe nearly 40%.

And then? If people were to live a lot longer, and everything else stayed 
the same, old people would soon end up in a huge majority. Ugh. Demographers 
reckon the planet will have trouble handling just the 8.9 billion forecast 
for 2050. Even were there shelter and food, these hordes of super-oldies 
would face a grim life, unless they could survive without vast extra medical 
care, and remain fit enough to go on and on working, to avoid having to be 
maintained by the dwindling, resentful minority of younger people.

Who wants it anyway? A world of seen-it-all-before, weary crumblies would be 
a depressing place to live in. As Cicero wisely observed in Rome more than 
2,000 years ago:

It is desirable for a man to be blotted out at his proper time. For as 
nature has marked the bounds of everything else, so she has marked the 
bounds of life. Moreover, old age is the final scene, as it were, in life s 
drama, from which we ought to escape when it grows wearisome and, certainly, 
when we have had our fill.

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