Eternal life – or mere oblivion?

(Fame) I’m gonna live forever! I’m gonna learn how to fly! – Jacques Levy

And all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty and nine years: and he diedGenesis 5:21–27

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. – Mahatma Gandhi

WHENEVER I buy a box of my preferred headache pills, I am almost invariably asked if I take any other medication. I don’t.

Recently, curiosity got the better of me and I asked a pharmacist why they ask. The answer is that “most people” of my age (I’ll admit to over 60) are on at least one form of regular medication, usually more: generally for high blood pressure, diabetes or cholesterol (statins, whether you want them or not). So I count myself lucky and will continue to walk the dog, eat a fairly healthy diet and take headache pills when I need them.

There is a massive and vastly profitable industry based on keeping us alive for longer – even though our health and social services, finances, transport systems and every other public service you can think of (including public toilets – much needed by the elderly), are not remotely equipped to deal with the ageing population that we already have.

Every glossy or newspaper weekend magazine is full of adverts for potions and ointments to keep our skin, hair and teeth looking lovelier and younger, and magic mushrooms, brilliant berries and other “superfoods” to ward off illness and disease.

There are hints and tips in the media and the papers every week on drinking this or not eating that to prolong your life and scientific breakthroughs to cut the death rate.

Today’s marketing departments – whether they are for beauty products or big pharmaceutical companies – are the 21st century’s answer to the snake oil salesmen who persuaded gullible country people to buy their fake remedies.

We are all going to die. We will die eventually even if life expectancy does rise, as forecast, to 140-150 by 2050 or even to 1,000, as suggested by a Silicon Valley hedge fund manager who has put up a $1 million prize for the scientist(s) who can “hack the code of life” and push the human lifespan past its apparent maximum of about 120 years (the longest known/confirmed lifespan was 122 years).

We are living far longer than most of our ancestors. At the beginning of the 19th century, the average life expectancy was about 40 – a figure that would have been affected by the number of children who died in infancy and women who died in childbirth. In the 21st century, in the affluent west, men can expect to live to at least 75 years, and women to 80. This is a good thing. It represents an important scientific and medical achievement. So, is there such a thing as a life that is long enough?

In September 2013 Google announced the creation of Calico, short for the California Life Company.  Its aim is to tackle ageing, “one of life’s greatest mysteries.” According to its website: “Calico is a research and development company whose mission is to harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan. We will use that knowledge to devise interventions that enable people to lead longer and healthier lives.”

In some respects this sounds laudable – but anyone who spends any time in the dementia ward of a nursing home will wonder what benefits there are for humanity in prolonging life unless we can resolve the irreversible realities of mental and physical decrepitude.

And then there is the question of demographics. The world’s population is constantly increasing, many countries in the west are unable to deal with their growing, ageing populations – and we are nowhere near restoring the balance to slow down the speed of climate change.

There are, bluntly, not enough resources to go round, unless the west cuts back drastically on its standard of living, the developing world accepts that it will never catch up with the west, (even if it does slow down), and the third world, lagging behind, will be denied the prospect of any improvements.

If people live to 150 or 200 (or even the theoretical 1,000 years) what would be the optimum age to have children – 75, 120, 500 … ?

There are so many ethical and practical questions that are ignored, both by drug companies greedy for the profits that would come from enhanced life expectancy and by ambitious scientists who want to change the course of human history.

Whenever people ask us when we are going to slow down, my response is always the same – I have no intention of slowing down. I would rather burn out. I have no wish to end my days angry, confused, physically incapable … for years and years …

Shakespeare, as always, puts our fears into sharp focus
… Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Be careful what you wish for – eternal life on earth may not be all it’s cracked up to be!

Fanny Charles