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The Methuselah syndrome


There has been a flurry of interest lately in the age-old question of extending human life. This is a topic that interests just about everybody, or at least everybody old enough to have a lively sense of their own mortality.

How long should we live? How long CAN we live? Certain questions and obsessions come to the surface and are fashionable for a while. Extended life is one of these, and not unconnected with the anxiety caused by the COVID epidemic.

Our cultural mythology is full of immortals or near-immortals: Methuselah, Peter Pan, Tiresius, Sir Galahad, Mick Jagger. The 40 members of the distinguished French academy actually call themselves “The Immortals,” but this is mere Gallic boasting. Kings and dictators have always dreamed immortality for themselves. Fortunately, they have always been disappointed so far.

Steven Johnson’s useful book A Short History of Living Longer reminds us of all the extraordinary medical and social innovations that have raised average life expectancy at birth from around 40 in 1888 to around 80 now. That’s not enough, it seems. There are dozens more books on the ever-popular subject of life extension. The research seems to show that if we mortify ourselves with diets and exercise regimes, take a truckload of anti-ageing medications, vitamins and supplements, and to stay active even if we would prefer to be inactive, we might all be able to live into our nineties. The oldest humans alive now are around a 118. The most extreme optimists have mentioned a lifespan of 130 years. Nobody seems concerned that a whole extra generation of such super-seniors would sink the social security system without a trace, and the economy with it.

Most people say that they want to live a long time, but not many say they want to be old — and 130 would very old indeed. Unfortunately, you can’t have one without the other.

But even though great old age is not very pleasant, and probably never will be, it is not difficult to understand the desire to continue on and on. It’s just ordinary human procrastination. We tend to put off things that we don’t want to do, and this is something that we don’t want to do, and nobody likes time limits. A single lifetime is nowhere near enough to see and do everything we want to see and do. It doesn’t give us time to understand ourselves, or anyone else, or to achieve wisdom. So, we must exit with an incomplete bucket list and a head full of unanswered questions, which is rather frustrating.

Those who are most optimistic about the possibility of immortality seem to be the ultra-rich. They stash away billions that they can never hope to spend in this life, apparently betting that the secret of eternal life will be discovered just in time. A few have resorted to cryogenics, being frozen after death and then unfrozen when all diseases are cured or after the next two presidential elections, whichever comes first. Money is a great life-extender, which is one reason why money is so popular. With money you have less stress and better health care. But even billions can only take you so far. Even billions will not buy you the fabled elixir of life, at least not yet. The big pharmaceutical companies are working on it, I’m sure, and will come up with the formula any day now. But don’t expect Medicare to pay for it.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.