May 1, 2011

UK: Live long. Stay healthy. Join the immortals

LONDON, England / The Guardian / The Observer / Health & Wellbeing / May 1, 2011

By Catherine Mayer

The seven ages of man are a thing of the past.

We're never too old to find a new lover, start a business or even have a baby. Now, we're ready for anything – except death. Welcome to the world of amortality. Plus, are you already an amortal? Take our test and find out

My father was well beyond the danger point of a dive when a weight slipped from his jacket and spiralled downwards into the gloom.

We had arrived at the quayside to discover our Red Sea pleasure boat laden with US soldiers on leave from peacekeeping duties in the Gulf. The platoon's NCO proved to be a seasoned diver. His charges were novices. A 19-year-old private from Arkansas, paired with my father, then 70, for the safety check and first dive of the day, failed to secure the weights that are essential in controlling a diver's surfacing speed.
Turning back the years: amortals live agelessly, doing many
of the same things from teens into old age. Photograph: Getty

The mishap illustrated one of many rules that the sea subverts: on dry land a healthy teenager will invariably outperform a septuagenarian in any physical exercise. Underneath the waves, age is as fluid as water. Confronted with a problem, the soldier lost control of his buoyancy, flailing like a fish in a net, while the older man, an emeritus professor of theatre history, calmly recalibrated their dive plan, communicating the change in the limited vocabulary of scuba sign language. Only once we were back on board was the natural order restored, as the senior grouched about the teen, who stretched out in the heat, blithely unaware of the animus he had attracted.

But the natural order is itself in flux. My father still dives in his 80s, still lectures, researches, writes books. People are living longer, sometimes much longer. Across the developed world the average lifetime has lengthened by 30 years since the beginning of the 20th century. The fastest-growing segment of the world population is the very old, with the number of centenarians up from a few thousand in 1950 to 340,000 in 2010 and projected to reach nearly 6 million by 2050. You might have thought we'd use all that extra time to squeeze in a few additional stages of life – from the seven ages of man observed by Shakespeare, when life expectancy at birth was below 40, to maybe 10, 12, 15 stages now that a man born in Stratford-upon-Avon looks forward to an average span of 76.9 years.

Here's the crazy, counterintuitive thing: the ages of man are actually eliding. Youth used to be our last hurrah before the onset of maturity and dotage, each milestone benchmarked against culturally determined expectations. Those expectations are now swirling and re-forming like glassfish in a current. What that means is that the premises on which our governments legislate are outdated. Our economies are based on data that no longer applies. There is a profound disconnect between how we imagine life and how it actually unfolds.

The meanings of age have become elusive; visual clues untrustworthy. Children dress like louche adults. Their parents slouch around in hoodies and trainers. Rising phalanxes of Dorian Grays rely on exercise, diet and cosmetic procedures to remain transcendentally youthful. Glowing teens and twentysomethings are propelled by some of those same procedures into a semblance of premature ageing, their sculpted, frozen faces timeless rather than fresh. Female celebrities don't grow old; they vanish.

And there's another reason our perceptions of age have come adrift: the disappearance of death in the developed world. If we're lucky... Click here for more

Catherine Mayer's
Amortality: The Pleasures and Perils of Living Agelessly
is published on 12 May by
priced £12.99

Are you amortal? Answer the following 10 questions and find out

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