The problem with the concept of immortality is that the popular imagination freezes the individual who lives forever at the peak of his physical and mental powers, as though ageing will cease at a specific chosen age and the lucky recipient will remain around twenty-five for all eternity. The genius of Jonathan Swift in turning the idea on its head in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ was to introduce the more…er…palpable notion of immortality without eternal youth. The Struldbrugs are immortal, though they continue to grow old beyond the point where any of their faculties are of any use to them. When they reach the age of eighty, they are declared legally dead in order that their descendents are entitled to inherit their worldly goods, though they remain alive, an incontinent embarrassment to the mortal population of Luggnagg, essentially as helpless and useless as newborn babies.
I was reminded of the hideous and pitiable Struldbrugs yesterday when I heard of a new report published in the international weekly journal of science, ‘Nature’, which claims the most realistic age human beings can ever expect to reach is 115 years-old. Although the general trend (certainly in the developed world) over the last century has been for life expectancy to increase thanks to advances in medical science, diet, vaccination and so on, those whose lives bypass 100 aren’t living any longer than they were before, with most conking out before they make it to 110. According to the report compiled by a group of New York scientists, life expectancy for centenarians hasn’t increased and has in fact levelled out since the death of Jeanne Calment at the age of 122 in 1997; the oldest verifiable person who has ever lived was of course the exception to the rule and nobody has come close to her refined age since, which appears to support the findings of the report.
The compilers of the report are based at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and studied the Human Mortality Database as well as collating statistics of centenarians in the UK, US, Japan and Europe to come up with their theory that the ceiling for the maximum human lifespan is 115. The report has been received relatively well by many within medical and scientific circles, though it has its critics too.
The centenarians examined by the team began their long lives in an age without antibiotics and penicillin, when infectious diseases that can now be cured could kill; yet, despite the huge improvements for mortality that spanned the century they lived through, generations born since the death of Jeanne Calment have to contend with a potential obstacle to living longer in the shape of obesity. Optimistic predictions that human lifespan will keep expanding perhaps haven’t taken this particular factor into account.
However, one critic of the report dismisses it as ‘a dismal travesty’. Prof. James Vaupel of the Max Planck Institute for Democratic Research says of the team behind the study that ‘they exploited rhetoric, deficient methods and pretty graphics to prove their gut feelings.’ He goes on to point out that previous reports had estimated a logical limit to the human lifespan that reflected the data relevant to the times in which they were compiled, whether the limit was 65, 85 or 105. He regards the latest report in a similar vein, telling us it ‘adds nothing to scientific knowledge about how long we will live.’
Cryogenic freezing aside, there are numerous parties or industries with a financial investment in prolonging life and promoting research into it. The field of cosmetic surgery is perhaps the most publicised, though one problem with the illusion that such surgery manufactures is that it doesn’t dip below the surface. Cosmetic surgery is solely about the exterior and overlooks the fact that all our internal cells age along with our faces, and there is little that can be done about that bar the odd hip replacement. The extent to which facial reconstruction on a purely vanity basis can succeed in postponing the likelihood of its customers ending up with countenances like WH Auden is in the eye of the beholder; some of the end results are pretty repulsive, to put it mildly.
But it’s telling how something that was once the exclusive province of ageing Hollywood actors and actresses attempting to maintain their A-lister status has filtered down to the masses with largely laughable results, whether the ironing out of wrinkles via Botox or the trout-pout lip injections that have taken the old phase ‘fish wife’ onto a new level altogether. It seems to highlight a relatively recent fear with the thought of ageing and any visible signs of it, as if the constant talk of an ageing population is something to be scared of rather than celebrated. We want to live as long as Methuselah (969 years, according to the Bible), but we want to look like we’re permanently 21.
It goes without saying that it’s easy to proclaim conking out at a reasonably elderly age (say, around 90) is enough, though none of us know how much we’ll want to go on living once we get there. It doesn’t matter how much work we might have had done to our faces by then; our insides will have aged regardless of the surface sheen, and we could well feel the prospect of carrying on for another ten or twenty years won’t be much fun after all.
To be honest, some of us have often felt we’ve lived long enough even before we’ve reached half-a-century on this planet, so the thought of being 100 is fairly horrific. But Mother Nature is in the driving seat when it comes to this particular issue; and there’s nothing we – let alone medical science – can do about it.
© The Editor