It’s a paradox, isn’t it? On the one hand, the chronic cataclysms of our era have made many of us so pessimistic about the planet’s long-term survival prospects that we’ll consider it a victory of sorts if we actually make it past 2012’s long-anticipated Mayan doomsday. On the other hand, boiling oceans, mass desertification, peak oil be damned — we’re all going to live to be a thousand!
David Murdock, an 87-year-old California billionaire recently told the New York Times he plans to be the first person to reach the age of 125 and that’s no idle boast: He’s poured $1.5 billion into a research center that studies the impact of nutrition and biotechnology on longevity. Gerontologist Aubrey de Grey thinks that the first person who will live to be 1,000 currently walks among us. On April 7, the 19th Annual World Congress on Anti-Aging and Aesthetic Medicine will be held in Orlando, Fla., and few of the thousands who are planning to attend, one suspects, are interested in checking outuntil they hit at least three digits.
Typically, the $50-plus-billion anti-aging industry is seen as yet another manifestation of the Baby Boomers’ inexhaustible narcissism. In the full flower of their youth, the most defiant and iconoclastic members of the Largest Generation hoped that they would die before they got old. Now that they’re drawing Social Security checks, they’re showing far more interest in human growth hormone, acai berry smoothies, and low-level laser therapy than the Who’s brash fatalism.
But is there something nobler than narcissism driving their quest for eternal sustainability? A balanced diet of collagen powder, glutamine and compounded estrogen may erase a few wrinkles and soothe a few aches, but as anti-aging naysayers love to point out, none of the cure-alls championed by true believers have been clinically proven to increase longevity in humans. Medicaid doesn’t cover testosterone gel and annoying side effects are always a possibility. Too much human growth hormone can elongate your chin and forehead to monstrous proportions. Resveratrol can give you acne. Imagine achieving immortality only to be saddled with a mug twice as large as your teenage face and even more densely pocked with pimples!
Most of all, there’s the burden of being a 68-year-old floppy-eared puppy — always enthusiastic about the world and its possibilities, always coursing with pharmacologically induced energy when you’d rather just be yelling obscenities at young people or staring vacantly at the pale green walls of your retirement home. As journalist Susan Jacoby writes in her new book, Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of The New Old Age, “Here’s what one cannot do and be considered a person who is aging successfully: complain about health problems to anyone younger; weep openly for a friend or lover who has been dead more than a month or two; admit to depression or loneliness; express nostalgia for the past …”
Instead, today’s seniors put on brave, Botoxed faces and forsake all the traditional comforts of decrepitude for a more metaphorically useful old age. Indeed, what else are octogenarian erections and mitochondrial DNA rejuvenation but Earth’s larger battle, writ small? Look at the planet’s balding ozone layer and its withered ecosystems and it’s easy to slip into depressing nihilism: Reversing Gaia’s downward spiral seems too overwhelming, too scientifically unlikely. But if we start small, if we think globally and act facially, our larger planetary challenge seems less daunting. In this respect anti-aging poster elder Suzanne Somers functions as our canary in a coalmine. As long as her incredibly buxom immune system continues to fire on all cylinders, keeping her teeth as white as the fur of a baby panda, infusing her blond tresses with the same bounce and shimmer they displayed in 1977, humanity has a shot at survival.