Humans don’t actually want to be immortal, we just want to be forever young

Should This Exist Juvenescence
Should This Exist Juvenescence
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

For more on scientific efforts to fight aging, check out the ninth episode of our Should This Exist?  podcast, which debates how emerging technologies will impact humanity.

For as long as humans have lived, we’ve been haunted by our inevitable deaths. Hence, the eternal quest for immortality. It’s persisted in history and lore in both the East and the West, and our cultural fascination with vampires, which feature prominently in literature, film, and TV.  More recently, our obsession has led scientists to experiments in cryonics, genetics, robotics, and more.

But there’s a catch: no one really wants to live forever if they won’t be healthy, energetic, and attractive. We don’t want to be Bram Stoker’s creepy old Count Dracula, holed away in a remote castle in Transylvania drinking blood. Rather, we dream of being Ann Rice’s Vampire Lestat, a sexy, rock n’ rolling immortal who tours the world, has fans, and is handsome. Basically, we confuse the age-old desire to find the fountain of youth with the search for the secret to immortality.

Many fictionalized works touch on the tension between these two quests, but few do it better than the 1983 erotic horror film “The Hunger,” starring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, and Susan Sarandon, based on the 1981 novel by the same name. Deneuve and Bowie play very sexy vampires in New York who teach classical music by day and go clubbing to find prey at night. Bowie is Deneuve’s protege, a man she turned into her forever lover in the 18th century, promising eternal love and life. However, as Bowie discovers, Deneuve can’t keep her lovers young for more than a couple hundred years and her past romantic partners are all stowed in coffins where they “live” as super creepy old creatures, moaning and whispering for eternity.

The same fate awaits Bowie. In the course of a single scene, he ages dramatically going from a very handsome young man to a fragile elder before the viewer’s eyes as he waits for an appointment with aging specialist Susan Sarandon. It’s perhaps one of the most poignant scenes in film because it perfectly captures and concentrates both a fear and a transformation that play out in many real lives, only much more slowly. The old Bowie, who can barely muster the strength to kill for blood, is wrinkled and tired. He begs Deneuve to release him into death instead of leaving him with this fate of surviving without truly living.

But there’s no release for Bowie. He must face old age, complete with its insults, just as many of us must.

Health span vs. lifespan

Thanks to medical advances, more of us live longer than ever before. A century ago in the US, the average lifespan was 56 years. Now it’s almost 79 years. That’s almost 23 more years to grow, evolve, and explore… or to suffer if we’re very sick.

Innovators, investors, doctors, and dreamers alike seek to increase the human “health span,” a period in which we enjoy many of the fruits of youth, primarily among them the ability to function without debilitating illness. As surgeon Tenley Albright noted at a recent symposium on surgery at the Harvard Medical School, “At medical school, we were told that our aim should be to help our patients die young as late as possible.” Doctors and scientists are increasingly talking about working to lengthen patients’ health span, rather than their lifespan, but this is still a relatively new concept.

That’s because getting old is a drag, apparently. The AgeLab at MIT has a suit, called Age Gain Now Empathy System, or AGNES, that allows people to feel the physical difficulties and emotional frustrations that come with the aging process. Journalist Adam Gopnik recently donned the astronaut-esque garment and described his experience testing it in the New Yorker. Every move in this suit, he wrote, became awkward and trying. Gopnik couldn’t just grab a mug from a shelf—he had to expend a lot of effort to do so, encumbered by the restraints of age, like arthritis, creaky joints, and limited mobility. The inconvenience made him irritated, then downright angry. He writes:

The suit bends you. It slows you…Your emotional cast, as focussed task piles on focussed task, becomes one of annoyance; you acquire the same set-mouthed, unhappy, watchful look you see on certain elderly people on the subway. The concentration that each act requires disrupts the flow of life, which you suddenly become aware is the happiness of life, the ceaseless flow of simple action and responses, choices all made simultaneously and mostly without effort. Happiness is absorption, and absorption is the opposite of willful attention.

Because being old is difficult, living longer is only what we want if these long lives include ever-longer youths, not extended periods of struggle.

Legends and icons

Some people seem to be able to extend youth (or the traits associated with it) without hocus-pocus. At 60, Madonna is looking good, performing energetically, making music, raising kids, posting on social media about fighting the patriarchy, and willing to take on any reporter who obsesses over her age. She believes that we, as a culture, are too worried about aging; her vibrant life makes a pretty good case for age as just a number that need not be a hindrance.

Similarly, at 54, Keanu Reeves is experiencing a resurgence of affection and attention. Today he is, perhaps more than ever before, a beloved sex symbol, a legend who is only half-jokingly referred to as immortal. But Madonna and Reeves are both very rich, and it’s fair to wonder whether money has something to do with their continued youthfulness. Even if they don’t pay for outlandish treatments, like, say, pumping young blood through their veins, they are spared many of the struggles that contribute to decay—the serious stress of fretting over bills, slogging to day jobs that barely pay enough to cover needs, ignoring health issues because they are too time-consuming and costly to contend with, dwindling opportunities, and the like.

However, it’s also important to note that Madonna and Reeves have both experienced tragedies that money cannot prevent—heartbreaks, divorces, family illness, deaths—and they have stayed productive, creative, and attractive. At this point it is endurance that makes them more great. Sure, they were both successful and widely adored before. But arguably their appeal now stems in large part from the fact that they are a tiny bit wrinkled and have refused to politely fade away. They have grown more iconic with time. Age, instead of being an obstacle to success, is now one of their strengths.

Aging is a disease?

Many health researchers today now believe that aging is a disease, meaning they think of the process as preventable and treatable. It’s a shift in parlance with big conceptual implications—aging, they believe, is no longer inevitable.

Not all scientists agree with this shift, however. University of Chicago bio-demographers last year cautioned in the journal Advanced Gerontology that it’s a mistake to consider aging a disease, though age and illness are related. “In our view, aging differs from disease in the same way that cause differs from effect,” they write. “Aging is the cause of many age-related diseases. Correspondingly, these age-related diseases are a consequence of aging. Thus, it is an oversimplification to recognize aging as a disease (as to equate cause and effect).”

But there are some advantages to thinking of aging as a disease, according to Louise Aronson, a doctor specializing in geriatrics and author of the new book Elderhood. The upside is that this increasingly common anti-aging approach employed by doctors, researchers, and health policy experts emphasizes prevention and holistic treatment. Rather than looking at each disease separately, health experts are starting to think of all medical care as a single process that can help stave off the diseases associated with old age.

The downside of this perspective on aging is that it means we are all getting a bit sicker every single day! “Aging is a universal phenomenon that gives life shape, direction, urgency, and meaning. Perhaps the most immediately worrisome consequence of the age-as-disease perspective is that it turns us all into disorders by our 50s,” Aronson tells Publishers Weekly.

For a personal sense of wellness, we may still be better off thinking of aging as an inevitable process with certain positive aspects—like additional wisdom accumulated through experience—rather than a sickness we hope to eradicate. If the many startups working on extended youth and anti-aging endeavors actually manage to create a magic potion that keeps us forever young, then someday we may get the chance to think about what, if anything, humanity loses when it finally finds the fountain of youth.

For more on scientific efforts to fight aging, check out the ninth episode of our Should This Exist?  podcast, which debates how emerging technologies will impact humanity.