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Phil-osophically Speaking - March 19, 2010

The Elusive Goal of Eternal Youth

The heart of the famous Spanish explorer, Ponce de Leon, was wedded to the sea. He sailed with Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas and he was the first Westerner to reach Florida. After finding gold in what is now Puerto Rico, he became intrigued over tales told by the natives of a wonderfully sumptuous island north of Cuba. These legends, interestingly enough, had nothing to do with gold or land. No, these whisperings told of something, perhaps the only thing he ever lusted for more than riches and fame.

Ponce de Leon was now 53 years old, a venerated age for someone alive in the early 16th century. His mortality weighed heavily upon him; thoughts of it haunted his dreams and crowded his waking hours. His brain, feverish with anxiety, kept asking over and over again: Is what they say true or just another fable? He could see the wild glow in their eyes, as bright as the campfires in the blackest nights, as they spoke of this wonderworking fountain in this faraway, mysterious land…this spring of waters that had the power to restore youth. His mind was made up…he would sail north in search of this ancient dream, this craving of the human heart, this fountain of youth.

History tells us that Ponce de Leon never found these magical waters, but since his arrival occurred at the time of the Easter feast (Pasqua, Florida), he christened the land he believed only an island, Florida. Eight years later, the restless explorer was now himself at rest. But his search goes on, 500 years later, for that elusive goal of eternal youth.

The dream of being forever young was never more alive than it is right here in the 21st century. Thumbing through a magazine, I come across an advertisement for something called “Cenegenics.” It is a program of nutrition, exercise and hormone optimization that guarantees improvement in muscle tone, energy, decreased body fat, a greater sex drive and sharper thinking. To make its point, the ad features a 70-year-old man with the physique of a 20-year-old bodybuilder.

Of course proper diet, not smoking, avoiding excessive alcohol and exercising regularly can lead to a longer and healthier life. But genes, especially among long-lived people sometimes matter more than lifestyle.

There is a story of a man about to celebrate his 100th birthday who claimed his great age was the result of living a life of sobriety. The school board was so impressed with this fact that it lobbied for his centennial to be a celebrated public event as a good example to the children.

The big day arrived. The mayor, a bevy of local news media, the school board and community leaders crowded into the honoree’s living room. Just as the mayor began to present the proclamation, they heard a loud, profanity-laced ruckus coming from upstairs. Stunned, all eyes turned to the 100-year-old man who nonchalantly said, “Pay no mind to that, it’s just my father — he’s probably drunk again.”

The story, of course, is apocryphal. It does, however, lampoon the notion that longevity and abstemious habits march together. This does not mean that DNA is the deciding factor in biological destiny; medical science and public health laws have played a significant role.

Over the course of a century, with antibiotics and improved sanitation, urban environments, once breeding factories for contagious diseases, are no longer inimical to health. Life expectancy, only 48 years at the turn of the century among urban dwellers, now hovers around 78 years. Centenarians, once as rare as rainbows, populate America by the thousands and scientists boldly predict that possibly half of all babies born today can expect to celebrate their 100th birthday. Meanwhile, as genomic technology advances, there is growing confidence that biological boundaries can be pushed to new frontiers.    

My own doctor once eagerly conveyed to me the bounty the human family will ultimately reap from genetic medicine. If we can alter our molecular structure just a little bit, and it’s possible he assured me, we could live to be 500. Did you say, I said disbelievingly, ‘500?’ That’s right, ‘500.’

Other than my own M.D., I never heard anyone in the life sciences who believes we could ever remotely approach such a superannuated age. My own view is that there certainly are chronological limits to life and these limits are shorter rather than longer. Our inevitable demise, frankly, is hardwired in the alphabet of our genetic makeup. Somewhere between the ages of 26 and 30 we begin, in effect, to self-destruct. Cells start to die off faster than they are produced; and over time, our bodies begin to sag, we need glasses to see and canes to get around — the skin wrinkles and loses moisture and our vital organs become more susceptible to life-threatening diseases.

There is even a school of thought that maintains nature programs us only to live long enough to reproduce and nurture our offspring to an age where they can perpetuate the species. When those imperatives are satisfied, we have nothing of value to contribute except to go to seed in order to make way for the succeeding generation. As I age, all I have to say about this group is what bunch of party poopers.

Seriously, such a nihilistic philosophy paints a far too harsh and dismal scenario of our existence. Human beings, after all, are not a bunch of plants; the richness of life, and the value it can bestow on humanity has a valuable role to play at any age. But, from another perspective, I have no faith whatsoever in the so-called elixirs of youth: Whether they work or not.

That youth is wasted on the young — I have little doubt. Nevertheless, the retarding of senescence can go too far. Life without mortality not only ends up being frivolous, it becomes pointless. Leon Kass, the brilliant philosopher and biologist, believes it is our impermanence, and our consciousness of it, that makes us most human, noble, and spurs us on to great achievements.

If you think deeply enough about the human condition, the human personality, and the spirit that moves it, you will find this to be true. I’m convinced, that despite all the miracles of science we need not worry too much about becoming a race of Methuselahs. Expanding longevity is indeed possible and probably inevitable, but it will not come by leaps and bounds, but merely inch ahead.

Madame Jeanne Louise Calment, who died in Arles, France on Aug. 4, 1997, may have said it best when looking at the nature of longevity. Madame Calment became famous for being the oldest, medically documented person in history by living 122 years and 164 days. She had outlived her only daughter and her only grandchild. She was blind but was at peace with this malady since a person so old, she said, was bound to be blind. Her cheerfulness, however, was unflagging and remarkable. On her 120th birthday when asked how she saw her future, Madame Calment laughed and said, ‘short.’

By the way, did I forget to mention that a sense of humor could add years to your life? It is something Madame Calment would have surely understood.