Want to live to be 100?

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Do you want to live to 100? Given the cult of youth in advertising, soaring rates of elective plastic surgery and the abiding myths of the Fountain of Youth, vampires and Faust, it’s probably safe to assume that many people would say yes, almost without thinking. After all, we seem to be programmed to fight for our lives, whether it’s because of a genuine lust for life or fear of dying.

On reflection, most people interested in accepting the offer of living longer would probably stipulate they wanted to be sure they had a decent quality of life—to be fit, healthy, strong and in possession of their faculties—but given that…why not?

In the developed world, it’s becoming increasingly possible. In the past century, for instance, average lifespan in places like Western Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, NZ and Japan, has increased from about 55 to about 80. This trend shows no sign of slowing down, and it is now based on a lot more than better healthcare and diet.

Queen MotherAs researchers learn more and more about how organisms work, it’s becoming increasingly evident that our lifespan is programmed into us and can be reprogrammed. An astonishing range of creatures, for instance, including mammals such as mice, can lengthen their lives significantly by eating less than they normally would, but enough to stay healthy. And there’s no reason to think that humans would be any different.

While no guaranteed elixir of life is available yet, there are possibilities on the horizon. Geneticists have already discovered genes in many animals, including mice, that regulate lifespan. And again, there’s no reason to think that humans would be exempt.

Message From the QueenSo… Do you want to live to 100? It’s actually a question we should be facing seriously. If you knew that you were going to live to 100, for instance, would you organise your life in the same way? Would you retire at 60? What about your finances and superannuation? Would it change your relationship with your immediate family?

How about medical care? It’s now possible with corrective surgery to have better eyesight than that with which you were born. It may soon become possible to replace, correct or maintain lots of other parts of your body. How should such intervention be regulated? Will this lead to elderly have and have nots? How much should the public health system pay for? If you have the opportunity for your life to be extended by medical intervention, is your doctor morally obliged to recommend you do so? What about medication or surgery that you know will permanently alter your brain?

Having reached a time in life where questions of longevity and old age are becoming increasingly significant—as family, loved ones and friends of earlier generations begin to deteriorate and die—Archimedes is far from convinced that a longer lifespan is something to covet unconditionally.

It's An HonourTwo things occur to him. One is that evolution selects the human body as a unit, the individual parts of which fit together and age together. Just like an Old Master which looks out of kilter because it has been renovated with modern pigments, maybe constantly updating body parts will lead to mismatches. How long we live is just as much subject to natural selection as anything else. Presumably, there’s an optimum lifespan.

Then there’s a topic with respect to longevity about which there is too little discussion—how does old age affect mental health. What happens when the world in which you are living has changed beyond your capacity to adapt? Is there a limit to what your brain can take—when you’ve lived through so much, and have so many memories, that you don’t want to accumulate any more?

Maybe life reaches a point where, like the Flying Dutchman, new experiences become meaningless, and living forever becomes a nightmare.



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Tim Thwaites is always a good read with his calm and well thought-out pieces on science and life. And this issue is a great bonus with all the extra items thrown in. By the way, where is Juliette Hughes?
Alan Slatyer | 14 June 2006


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