Do you really want to live forever?

Candles on a cake

Science is striving to reverse the ageing process so we can all live longer, but that does come with its drawbacks, says Joan Bakewell in A Point of View.

Last week scientists at Harvard medical school reversed the ageing process in elderly mice. Please don't get excited, unless you're a mouse that is. The application to humans is a long way off and even if it will one day be possible, there are many issues attendant on a population that has the means to live forever.

Harvard's research will be welcomed by two entirely different groups of people. Instantly, and possibly without too much thought, by those who pander to and encourage the wish of women not to "lose their looks" as they grow older. Nobody loses their looks, they just have different looks.

But by a universally agreed norm, within our culture beauty carries a prize. Ever since Paris offered the apple and Helen launched a thousand ships, we have known that beauty, especially in women, offers an easier life, more attention, more opportunities, friends, lovers, gratification.

I hope you won't argue with me in this - in my own small way I've lived it. I was once thought pretty, now young people give up their seat to me on the Tube. Life brings many changes and growing old involves adapting to them.

Creepy

Women in their 40s and 50s find it hard when the first wrinkles hit. They are a sitting target for a multi-million pound cosmetics and skin care industry that makes glamorous commercials only just this side of legally acceptable, promising to slow the ageing process of the female body. Along come the geriatric mice and their hopes soar. But the promise of eternal youth has deluded more than Dorian Gray. No need to make space just yet for the painting in the attic. The human body ages, get used to it.

Woman have botox Women go to extremes to look younger

The other eyebrows that will be raised by the news from Harvard belong to the scientists around the world who are now engaged on the serious matter of ageing and how it happens. Medical intervention once seemed limited to curing us of diseases that kill. In my childhood, diphtheria and scarlet fever still carried people off, I had friends crippled by polio and aunts deformed by rickets. All this seemed the proper field for medical intervention.

We seemed to accept that the big killers struck people in late middle age - most often, it seemed to me as a child, cancer, which was then an ill-defined umbrella term referred to in hushed whispers as "the big C".

We all know what happened next, a great swathe of advances in hygiene and medicine drove the major killers on to the back foot. From a combination of better lifestyle, cleaner cities and the benefits of a free health service, people began living longer.

We hear regularly of the latest treatments for coronary heart disease, breast cancer, kidney failure, and we live in the belief that when we have an unwelcome diagnosis the full force of medical knowledge will be marshalled for our benefit. We have come to expect better. Now we want life to go on forever.

There are people frantic for eternal life. A few years ago I met people who were vesting their savings in the cryogenic movement - a movement that undertook to freeze your body after you were dead and keep it until such time as science came up with the solution to whatever had killed you, at which moment you could be defrosted, cured, and resume your life.

Dogma

Little attention was being paid to two serious disadvantages: what might the world be like when you emerged from the deep freeze, would they still have iPods and aeroplanes, supermarkets and killer heels. And secondly, why would anyone bother to defrost you when you had already paid up and had no possible means of redress. Who would want to resurrect a cluster of damp and out of date individuals, who would merely hang around adding to the world's population problem?

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Joan Bakewell

Everyone is ageing at every moment of their lives, it's just that some of us are ahead of the rest”

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Incidentally, I understood that some deluded individuals who didn't have enough money for the whole body treatment were told they could have their head alone frozen, and expect it to be stitched onto any available body when the time came. Science fiction can't get much creepier.

While most of us don't want to live forever, many of us would enjoy living longer. At the same time we would like the planet to survive as we know it. There is a contradiction in contemplating a world where everyone lives much longer and where the planet's resources are finite.

Unless we can learn to eat sand we should bear in mind the fates of places like Angkor Wat and Easter Island, places once dense with people and culture now empty ruins. Populations have died out or been massively relocated before now. Again, science fiction lurks in the wings. Flights to Mars anyone?

The fine line we have to travel is one that we are currently mapping out. There are no precedents. We must measure the gains to our ageing population of today's fast-developing medicine against the problems created globally. To even approach this subject is to invite reproach.

When China judged the rapid growth of its population needed control and instituted state policy of a one child family, other cultures threw up their collective hands in horror. This smelled to them of eugenics, of selective breeding, of Hitler's worst fantasies. It is indeed a harsh dogma. When I was there in the 80s it was explained to me that you could break the rule as long as you incurred penalties. If a family had a second child they were downgraded in the claim they had on state housing. And so on, another child and further penalties.

Flesh

I don't know whether this system still operates in today's China, but we have seen its impact more recently when a school collapsed killing some of the pupils. The anguish of parents was as agonising as any others and we could sympathise fully with that. Added to it was the awareness that many had lost their only child.

Removing eggs from cryogenic storage Cryogenics involves deep freezing

But let's stay close to home for in truth there are many dilemmas on our own doorstep. I read this week of a new business launched in October that will for a fee freeze stem cells taken from teeth, fat, bone marrow and other tissues in the belief that such fresh stem cells, once unfrozen, will be of better use than older stem cells in curing ailments that develop later in life.

This is a private commercial venture, but university departments around the country are conducting stem cell research that will help us recover from illnesses that would otherwise kill us. Others are looking into the further possibility of using animal parts for transplants. There is talk of work on Alzheimers, on multiple sclerosis.

Gerontology itself - the study of ageing - is a big growth area. And all this is fine, we are in the right place at the right time, though perhaps some of us are a little late for the anti-ageing bonanza that could be on the way in Britain. I don't worry about that. I have other concerns.

The prospect of more years is of course inviting - living to see the grandchildren marry, watching the tree you planted with such care grow to its full height, seeing our rivers flow clean and full of fish again, all lifestyle pleasures that we would relish.

But there is another prospect and one already known to too many in our communities. It is a life lived in isolation, our earning lives over, our efforts to sustain some life in the mainstream rejected, families far away or indifferent or both.

The occasional and erratic visits from a changing medley of inept carers, food not as we once relished it, but half cooked, half cold, dumped on us by those eager to be gone. The home we know getting shabby, the garden that was once our pride overgrown and run to seed. I wonder what runs through the minds of such people when they read of brave new developments made by scientists in their prime?

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  • A Point of View, with Joan Bakewell, is on Fridays on Radio 4 at 2050 GMT and repeated Sundays, 0850 GMT

As for ourselves, our bodies, Shakespeare had it right: "Second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything." There is more to life than the flesh and while science is brilliantly keeping us ever fit and alert, something else is needed. And there are no specialists for that.

We all know what it is. In our homes comfort and warmth - literally in blankets and proper heating - but also in our hearts, friendship and laughter, story telling and ideas, reminiscence and nostalgia, an old photo album shared, favourite meals recreated. All these are the bric-a-brac of daily life, things the young may dismiss as trivial as they hurtle through their hectic schedules

But they too, we hope will be old one day and we need to get the template right for when its their turn. After all, everyone is ageing at every moment of their lives, it's just that some of us are ahead of the rest.

A selection of your comments appears below

This is a wise and timely article. I believe it was Julian Huxley who said some time ago: "The population explosion is making us ask the fundamental question- so fundamental that it is not usually asked at all- what are people for?" In my view societies need to debate more seriously the issue of decriminalising voluntary euthanasia for those who are so unwell or incapacitated that life has become intolerable. I'm all for medical science doing what it can to keep us healthy; but once that becomes impossible for any individual, a dignified and relatively pain-free exit should be a choice each of us is free to make for ourselves.

Graham Townsend, Christchurch New Zealand

I was particularly touched by your words when you mentioned the prospect of a life lived in isolation with families far away or indifferent or both. individuals are "free" to move from country to country (read: coerced to move wherever there is work available). A life lived in isolation away from our estranged families is a destiny that many of us experience well before old age.

Ivan Pellegrin, Brussels, Belgium

I couldn't disagree more! Surely you are looking at this from the point of view of somebody who at 77 is looking back? Perhaps somebody who has led the same life course - academic, what you do and who you mix with is fundamentally the same as you did 20 or 30 years ago? What if we lived for 200 years, almost all of them active and productive. Of course we would have to learn how to remain fresh and inovative, new horizons at 80, new career path at 100, treating a 50 year old with the same respect as one's 150 year old peers? Try reading some sci-fi where so much of this is postulated and explored. I agree that many people wouldn't either deserve or benefit from an extended life, but there are those of us who would work hard for it and work hard to justify that gift.

Simon Mallett, Lenham, Kent

You're thinking of it all wrong. At the moment, a professional retires after 40 years, think how we'd advance as a race if we could progress careerwise for 200 years, surgeons, engineers etc would be fantastic, humans would advance exponentially. Secondly, effect on the world. Well to us 7,000 years old seems a lot. Geologically, it's a blink. You are thinking in terms of what we have to cram in to three score and 10 now. If you lived to 7,000, you wouldn't have children till you were 2 to 3000. You confuse today's living timescales, where four generations occur within 100 years and fear overcrowding etc.

Paulie, London

A well-balanced and thoughtful analysis by Joan. It may be true that old age can bring loneliness and suffering from physical breakdown. It is essential that perceptions of old age are modified. Older people have gained valuable knowledge and experience and should be valued for their contribution to society. Yes, they should be enabled to live longer and presumably be in good enough health to be able to pass on their knowledge and skills to improve society.

Stella Byrne, Wales

A touching and brilliantly written article. I think Joan is right. If we had the potential to live forever, it would cause untold social injustice and disasters. Imagine if only celebrities/politicians could afford it.. Doesn't matter if you believe in God or Darwin, the fact is, we are designed to wear out and die. It's built into our DNA, and part of the clockwork of a universe we will never fully understand.

Paul, St Ives, Cornwall

In reality, we all subscribe to life extension through better sanitation and antibiotics, which have already boosted our lifespans greatly compared to earlier times. So, unless you want to turn your back on those... "Unless we can learn to eat sand"...did I hear someone say Malthus? By his reckoning we should already be eating sand, and yet it hasn't happened. In the future people will be wondering why were even bothered debating this. It's going to happen.

Rob , London

A genuinely thoughtful and sincere piece but the thought of cold comfort in science, in the absence of the bric-a-bra of daily life, leaves me empty at the prospect of the evening of my life. I feel somehow the secularisation of the ideas here makes them all the more cold and makes the writing depressing. This is a shame because I think there is much more to the maturation into the senior years. I think those that engage in society rather than retreating into their retired lives, get the most out of the evening and night of their lives. One of the happiest men I know (he still drives despite being 95) is kept young in his body, mind and spirit by spending as much time as he can with younger people around him, being as useful as he can manage, and giving others the benefit of his years of wisdom. Is this not how all "getting older" should be?

Shane Morrison, Croydon

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