As scientists plan to be able to reverse ageing in five years, A.N.WILSON warns… Not knowing when our time will come is a vital part of being human. That’s why it’s insane to seek a jab for eternal youth
It used to be a sign of growing old that policemen appeared to be getting younger. Now, it’s mice.
For a landmark scientific study has shown that experimental therapy can rejuvenate cells in mice, helping them live longer. This research could lead to the development of a technique that within five years may be tested in humans.
Terrific! In five years, the white-coated boffins hope to be injecting us with magic genes so that people can dream of being like the oldest lady in the world,a French nun who died last weekaged 118, not looking a day over 109.
Of course, along the way, the scientists hope to eliminate many of the ills to which we are prey in old age – such as dementia and creaking joints.
An anti-ageing drug tested using mice could be experimented on humans in five years, new research has suggested
If they succeed, good luck to them. For no one who has watched someone they love descend into the dark land of dementia would wish that fate on their worst enemy.
But, do we really want to live longer than we do already?
My wife and I are living temporarily in a small Bedfordshire town that is crammed with beauty parlours and nail bars. There are no dry cleaners, no ironmonger, no very few useful shops at all – but everything you need if you want false eyelashes and glossy long nails. They’ve just opened an umpteenth one, and its name is Blissfully Young.
The people coming out of it all look a bit like Alison Steadman’s fun-loving mum character in TV’s Gavin & Stacey. Nothing wrong with that, you might say, but they do not look either young or blissful. I think there is something a bit sad about them – as there was about Roger Moore, who, having been the handsomest James Bond, was turned into a stiff, ageless thing, as if embalmed. I’m reminded of writer Gore Vidal’s description of President Ronald Reagan as ‘a triumph of the embalmer’s art’.
Surely the quality of life is best judged not by how young we pretend to be, still less by how long we live, but on how we live?
In Gulliver’s Travels, the writer Jonathan Swift creates a land called Luggnagg inhabited by a race endowed with immortality.
A.N. WILSON: ‘In five years, the white-coated boffins hope to be injecting us with magic genes so that people can dream of being like the oldest lady in the world’ (file image)
At first, Gulliver thinks this is marvellous. Imagine living for ever and being eternally youthful.
Yet the people of Luggnagg have bodies that grow old. They become disgusting in appearance and ever smellier, ever more quarrelsome, querulous and grumbly.
Surely the result of the work of these anti-ageing scientists would be equally horrifying?
The most sinister thing about the researchers’ experiment is what many of us, at first glance, would think to be the most to be desired. That is, that they will be introducing an element of choice into what had hitherto been a relentless and unalterable process. Namely, the element of choice about when we die. I would argue against any benefit from that, too. There used to be a famously witty and malicious don at Oxford University called Maurice Bowra. One day, he went into his college and saw the flag flying at half-mast, signalling that one of his colleagues had died. His said to the college porter: ‘No, don’t tell me – let me guess who…’
I believe that the element of ‘let me guess’ should be present in any well-adjusted human life – not about the death of others, but about our own death… and our own life. The fact is that we do not know what lies in store, this year, or next, or in ten years’ time.
Lucile Randon (pictured) had died in her sleep at the age of 118, she was the oldest person in the world
We learn on the job, we adjust, and that is an essential ingredient in life-experience. It means that we have to reconcile ourselves to two things: the inexorable process of ageing, and the uncertainty of the hour of our death. Both these factors are good things, good challenges.
I suppose the closest thing on the planet to Gulliver’s land of Luggnagg is California, where the population, with their mild, gentle suntans, and facelifts, pursue their seemingly immortal and pointless existence. It is all of a piece with California not really having seasons.
But for most of the planet, seasons mark the progress of the year – and life’s seasons mark the changes to our bodies and our characters.
An anti-ageing drug might enable us to go on a bit longer with our own hips and knees, and it might – just might – help us not to become demented. But if it made us young again, it would be hell.
Surely no one would want to go through the trauma of adolescence more than once!
And for most men, trust me, the 20s are a gruesome decade.
If you could actually have a one-off injection that makes you eternally younger, it would not, of course, return you to actual youth. It would simply freeze you in some sort of middle-age.
If you believed that would mean not having to worry about muscular pain or forgetfulness, you would rush to have the injection.
But it would also be depriving you of the day-by-day, month-by-month recognition that the human race, like the rest of nature, is on a seasonal cycle.
It is natural to grow old, and it is insane to want to be – to borrow the name of the newest beauty parlour in my current neck of the woods – Blissfully Young.
There is nothing wrong with being elderly, nothing wrong with being extremely old.
Close your eyes for a moment and think about the faces you have most loved in your life. Yes, you will be thinking of your first kiss, the first heart-cracking crush of your schooldays. You might well be thinking of your children.
A.N. WILSON: ‘If they succeed, good luck to them. For no one who has watched someone they love descend into the dark land of dementia would wish that fate on their worst enemy’ (file image)
But you will also be remembering a grandmother or a parent, their wrinkled old features being part of what it is you love.
The wrinkles are the signature of a lifetime’s experience.
It is a commonplace, which we repeat to ourselves when we lose loved ones too young, but it is true: that the quality of a life is not to be measured in length of years, but in how we live, or have lived.
Simply realising that we do not need plastic knee replacements or that we can still run upstairs aged 80 is not really what we crave.
What we want from life, whether we die aged 20 or 90, is to have learned how to love.
Wise scientists know this, of course. But in the atmosphere of a laboratory, it is easy to suppose that what is true of mice is also true of human beings, and that is never going to be true.
The mysterious element that makes us different from other creatures used to be called our soul. John Keats, a wise young poet who died aged 25, said we live in a vale of soul-making.
That’s not the same as scuttering through the scientifically programmed existence of laboratory mice.