A few days ago, I wrote an article while on a plane. I’m an expat, and I was flying back to my home country. I’m now in my hometown, where I lived until I was 18. I come back here only seldom, and the last time I visited was four years ago.
For the vast majority of the time I lived at my parents’ house, I was a child. My most vivid memories of the place are from my childhood, when everything looked so much larger. So, even though I did live here as a grown-up as well, every time I come back here after years of absence, every room in the house looks far less spacious. Things have changed a bit since I left. Furniture has changed place and function; ornaments and knick-knacks have been moved, added, or removed; predictably, even the town has changed somewhat over the years.
What has changed the most, though, are the people.
As if they too were knick-knacks, they have been moved, added, or removed, and, in a way, some of them have changed function as well—more specifically, they don’t function as well as they used to.
Over the course of about a month before my departure, three people I knew died of age-related diseases. A cousin of my dad died of a heart attack at age 84. Her husband had died a few years earlier; I think he was only a few years older than she was. A friend of my dad, with whom he went to school and who used to be his doctor as well, died as well, though I’m not sure about the exact pathology that took his life. A neighbor died after a long battle with cancer, which, like a perverted game of whack-a-mole, kept metastasizing in different tissues of her body.
From my parents’ house, you can get to the beach in about ten minutes by car. Neither my girlfriend nor I are big fans of driving, so we tagged along with my dad to go to the sea. On the very first day, as we walked through the veranda of the seaside resort to reach the beach, there was a shriveled old man sitting at a nearby table, alone, smoking his cigarette with a slight frown, looking like he just didn’t care anymore. His face told me nothing, but my dad stopped to say hi.
He proceeded to introduce me and my girlfriend to the old man, and I promptly shook his hand, which was already shaking enough on its own anyway. I said, “Pleased to meet you,” but right after that, my dad told me the man’s name, and I understood that the introduction was meant as a joke. “I think ‘Pleased to meet you’ might be a bit too much,” the man said, bitterly sarcastic, turning towards me with difficulty. I actually knew him; it’s just that, when I met him last time, just a few years earlier, he was nowhere near being in such bad shape. I apologized for not recognizing him and mostly listened to the subsequent, short conversation.
As we bathed in the sea, we met the old man’s wife, who is just a few years younger than him, but as far as I can tell, in much better shape. They both smoke, which is a really bad idea. Cigarettes are taking this man to the grave at warp speed, but he doesn’t seem to care.
The old man is 76, just a year younger than my dad, who I must say doesn’t look his age. I suppose that just goes to show what cigarettes can do to you, but that’s not all. My parents, my aunts, my uncle—they’re all elderly, the youngest being at least 70. Yet, at 77 years old, my dad is the healthiest of the gang, as far as I know. He’s not in perfect shape; he’s quite hunched over, and he has a cataract as well as high blood pressure. There are some things that he could easily improve with exercise and a slightly different diet, but I also think that he’s got good genetics—which, admittedly, I hope will benefit me as well. Maybe the others just complain more about their ailments, but to me, it really comes across as if they’re not doing as well as he is.
Speaking of my elder relatives, I got to meet three of them just a little before sitting down to write this piece. I was having breakfast at my aunt’s, who lives alone right next door. She’s my father’s sister. She, too, has high blood pressure and issues with her cholesterol. I could see how her face and body have been decaying over the years, her now flabbier skin peppered with darker spots. At one point, my other aunt came to visit. She, too, looks so much older now. Just like the house of my childhood, my most vivid memories of my relatives are from when they were some 30 years younger. Even though I have seen them older than that, it’s still always an unpleasant surprise to see how they’ve aged when I see them again every few years.
Somehow, the fact that I work in life extension was mentioned early on in the conversation. They’re not familiar with the topic, and they don’t really understand it. The aunt who was having us over for breakfast has known about it for a while, because she and I ended up talking about it some time ago, but she’s clearly got only a vague idea of the whole thing, and I’m not sure if she takes it too seriously. She’s the one who’d opened the topic up, saying with a laugh that I’m especially interested in “abolishing old age”, which is an expression that, in Italian, sounds wrong enough to be cringeworthy.
I spent a few words trying to explain what this is all about, as my other aunt was very clear that there’s no point in extending life if you have to spend more time being sick. She’s more interested in living what time she has left with dignity and independence than living longer. I tried to explain how that life extension is about being healthy, and that longevity is just an obvious side effect, but I didn’t get to finish my explanation. The topic was simply not taken seriously enough. They didn’t laugh at it; they simply treated it as any other conversation topic, which I always find surprising. In their situation, I’d jump from my chair if I heard that scientists are trying to reverse aging. I suppose that they simply can’t truly grasp the idea and that they’re all resigned to the sad reality that their health is going away and that friends and relatives just keep dying around them.
I wasn’t in the mood to engage in a conversation about life extension, especially not with people who have slim chances to see it happen. I didn’t want to rub salt in their wounds. As we talked about my girlfriend’s and my holiday plans, my visiting aunt commented that it’s great that we do this while we’re young. She regretted that she hadn’t traveled more when she was younger and remarked, “What you don’t do when you are young, you will never do.” I had already given up entirely and just nodded affirmatively. For a life extensionist, that’s a rather difficult thing to do.
As my visiting aunt’s husband—my father’s brother—joined us, the topic changed somewhat. He’s always been a cheery guy, even after his heart attack, which causes him to eat very little. Yet, it didn’t take long before we started talking about a friend of theirs, another person who’s been battling cancer in his old age.
My elder relatives aren’t the only ones who haven’t shown much interest in life extension. Maybe they don’t quite grasp it, but my sisters should have a better understanding of it. Yet, I think it’s still somewhat beyond them. They never ask me much about it. I end up mentioning something when they ask me about work, but that’s all. I must have mentioned that there’s a decent chance they’ll live to see robust rejuvenation, but I honestly do not think that they take the subject seriously.
They keep joking about old age and how they’re “getting old”, although the oldest people among me, my sisters, and our partners are just barely in their mid-forties. They talk about retirement and even of not making it to 70, in order to spare themselves the “disgraceful spectacle”, in an entirely casual manner, even in front of my nephews—yet another generation growing up thinking that there’s nothing wrong with growing decrepit and “losing your marbles”. Even when said in jest, I think that kind of narrative is what has brought us to the point where being resigned to aging and losing our health is pretty much a cornerstone of our culture.
At times, the future scares me. If research on life extension is successful and much longer lives really become a thing, there will be huge changes to come, and some turbulence will be inevitable. I’m as afraid as I would be if peaceful aliens came to visit: absolutely thrilled that it finally happened, excited about the change, but also conscious that from that point on, nothing will be the same anymore.
As an advocate, I’ve taken upon myself the task of forwarding this cause in any way I can; longing for the benefits that we could all gain from it, hoping for the best, but unable to tell for a fact what will actually happen, because nobody can. We have reasons to be optimistic, but we can’t know the future. There’s no way to tell with absolute certainty if the research will be successful, if there will be unexpected problems, or even if the expected ones will prove tougher to deal with than previously thought.
There are times when I think this might be too big for me, but then I remember what I’ve just described. I think about people losing their health and their minds. I recall the people incapable of taking care of themselves. I remember people I knew who are now no longer there, plucked out by aging one by one. I think of how aging is slowly dismantling my acquaintances and my family and of how it will eventually wipe them out entirely. I think of the time when my girlfriend and I will be elderly, fragile, and sick, wondering what has been of our former selves. I think about how either of us will have to cope with the loss of the other after a lifetime spent together, and I think about how much I don’t want that to happen. I think about how virtually everyone will go through this ordeal, unless we prevent it. The fact that we all share this fate doesn’t make it better; if anything, it makes it worse.
The way I see it, “that’s life”, “just accept it,” “learn to live with it,” and similar expressions are just catch phrases for quitters to feel good about quitting. I will have none of it. I won’t be fooled by pictures of happy elderly people in insurance or senior health care advertisements; I know that, behind that mask, there are people who are losing their health, their friends, their relatives, and their own lives. I’ve seen it and heard it personally, time and time again, in different times and different places. Coping is not being happy. Lying to ourselves about aging is not going to ameliorate it.
Just like infant mortality, or the time when infectious diseases were rampant globally, this must end. Aging must end. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we need to try. Even if it’ll take longer than we hope, even if our generation won’t live to see it happen, even if the repair approach blows up in our faces and we have to start from scratch all over again, even if there are large, unforeseen problems, we must be as merciless and relentless with aging as aging is with us. We’re facing a fierce but unintentional enemy who, unlike us, cannot learn, research, or plan. If we put our minds to it, we can do it. We can take aging down. We must do it.