Eternal life won’t live up to expectations

By Minette Marrin (THE TIMES, 03/09/06):

‘Do you sincerely want to live forever?” was the title of a documentary film I worked on as a researcher more than 20 years ago. It was about the science of ageing and what was known at that time. It featured a crew of the brilliant and the eccentric, including a couple of long-haired ex-hippie Californians in the Life Extension movement, gulping handfuls of different drugs every day, and a very distinguished American scientist cutting his calories back to the starvation levels of his own ancient laboratory rats to increase his lifespan as he had increased theirs. In their different ways — both alternative and highly scientific — these remarkable characters were actively trying to do what the rest of us only dream of: to hold back death.

I was reminded of them last week by the strange story of Dr Jeya Prakash, a Harley Street plastic surgeon, who claims he has reversed the ageing process. He has been experimenting on himself and on his wife with injections of human growth hormone, and is so pleased with the results that he plans to market the drug as anti-ageing. He posed for pictures with his pretty wife last week and it is true that she, at least, looks astonishingly young for her age and could, as he says, be mistaken for his daughter, though she is as middle-aged as he is.

There’s nothing very new about seeing HGH as the elixir of life. Some sportsmen and sportswomen use it to improve their performance and have found that as well as increasing their strength and suppleness very noticeably it also unmistakably rejuvenates their skin and their general appearance. Not surprisingly, international beauty bandits have been onto this for several years. HGH is an extremely powerful drug; it can have very serious side effects, and its magical rejuvenation disappears when you stop taking it, but that won’t deter the fanatics.

Yet one cannot help thinking that what is flaky today will soon become respectable. Twenty-something years ago a very distinguished American professor of gerontology said in our documentary that knowledge in his field was doubling every year. It may not be long before hormones like HGH can be used safely. It is a safer bet that a huge amount of research is going into it. And there is progress in related fields: last week it was reported that gene therapy had rescued two middle-aged men from the last stages of cancer — and actually cured them.

American scientists of the US National Cancer Institute team in Bethesda extracted some of the two men’s own immune cells, genetically modified them to attack the cancer cells, and transfused them back into the patients, where — miraculously it seems to the lay woman — the new cells attacked the tumour cells and began to destroy them.

This may be only the beginning of a very complex process but it has immense implications, not just for cancer but for everything that flesh is heir to, including the ravages of age. Presumably there will come a time, perhaps in the lives of today’s children, when all the cell degeneration that makes us grow old and die could truly be arrested by gene therapy. Already we’re a long way on from monkey glands.

The question remains, however: do you really want to live forever? The photographs of Maria Esther de Capovilla, an Ecuadorian woman who died last week at the age of 116, made me think not. To be very aged and frail and dependent, and — I confess — to look every day of 100 years old is not something I want. A remarkable Englishman celebrated his 100th birthday last week with his colleagues at Pimlico Plumbers in London, where he works at a physically demanding job. He looks quite amazing, but I am not sure I would like to reach that stage.

There was a very sad story recently of a Frenchwoman who lived in good health to well over 100, but in her last two or three years her care workers took away her cigarettes, supposedly for the sake of her health. To be bossed by stupid busybodies and be too weak to defy them is one of the many terrors of old age. In Britain starvation and neglect on the NHS is another.

Age means the loss of the best things in life: youth, power, beauty, sensation, energy, memory and independence. It is particularly fearsome in a culture like ours which worships youth and beauty so much and thinks age is unnecessary, as King Lear bitterly said. I look around at people who are growing old, including my friends and me, and wonder what has gone wrong. The distinguished gerontologist in our film was very nearly bold enough, but not quite, to say on camera that ageing is a disease.

I hope this doesn’t sound heartless; if it is, I have it too. As my mother rather bleakly used to say, life is nasty, brutish and far too long. I respect the courage and the style of those who face age philosophically, but I don’t aspire to it. I don’t want to cling to life sans everything.

If, however, science could offer us not just long life but long-drawn-out youth and health as well, if life extension were in effect youth extension and if the passing decades hardly touched us, perhaps one would answer the question differently. If one could be as youthful and fit at 90 as one was at 30, wouldn’t one immediately grab the pills and swallow them? I wonder.

One of the most striking things about our film was the number of people who said that death gave meaning to life. I’m not thinking of those who said so for religious reasons, and who in a sense look forward to death; I mean those unbelievers who felt, somehow, the need of a sense of an ending. The need of a shape to one’s life is the same as the universal need for a shape to the great stories; it gives purpose and definition. For that reason one doesn’t want to go on and on repeating experiences, even the best ones. There can only be one first love, one first born. Presumably that’s why people talk of being tired of life, of having had enough.

There needs, in the end, to be a resolution, or even an escape, and death provides it. As E M Forster said, death destroys a man (but) the idea of death saves him. A timely death is something to be welcomed. Death, be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so.

Dying is a different matter; like Woody Allen, I’m not sure I want to be there when it happens. My ideal would be to die very suddenly at three score years and 10, looking and feeling only 32. Well, perhaps a little longer . . ..