BRYN MAWR COLLEGE LIBRARY
In December 2007, at the annual World Congress on Anti-Aging Medicine in Las Vegas, Suzanne Somers, the actress and bestselling author of Ageless: The Naked Truth About Bioidentical Hormones, delivered a rhapsodic keynote speech in praise of hormone replacement therapy. “I go to these parties sometimes with all these successful men who’ve really achieved in their careers,” she told the enthusiastic, middle-aged crowd. “Seventies, eighties, and they’re out of gas. They’re just so out of gas! They all sit there, they’re drooping–their face, their body’s drooping–they’ve all got deep belly fat, they’re all kind of grumpy…. And I look at them and I think, ‘This out of gas doesn’t have to be!’ You know this. I know this. It’s hormones!”
Thanks to modern science, the grail of enduring youthfulness–if not eternal youth–is within the grasp of middle-class Americans, for whom the road to senescence is now paved with restorative procedures and rejuvenating formulas. You can be young again, at least until you’re dead. And while Somers is still a ways from a National Institutes of Health appointment, the government and its bedfellows in the private sector are enmeshed in life extension of the more pedestrian variety. Sustaining people in the last two years of their lives consumes a third of Medicare’s budget, and of the 16 percent of the country’s GDP that is now spent on healthcare, an ever growing proportion is dedicated to treating a range of diseases that would have been death sentences half a century ago. Medical advances have pushed back old age–the duration of the average American life has increased by a decade since 1950–and turned the final years into a series of expensive encounters with corpse-maintenance machines.
And this may be only a prelude. There are those who say we are not even beginning to approach the horizon of mortality, and that death may be delayed another twenty, thirty, even fifty years. Aubrey de Gray, a biogerontologist who is perhaps the foremost scientific proponent of life extension, argues that through cell therapy and the deceleration of metabolism, we’ll be able to “eliminate aging as a cause of death this century,” allowing people to live as long as a thousand years. Much to the chagrin of so-called bioconservatives, we are redefining what is “humanly possible,” as well as what is human.
Death has always been feared and eternal life sought, but for most of human history anxiety about death was resolved through the promise of an afterlife–hence the treasure-packed burial chambers of the pyramids, the human ash clogging the Ganges and the catacombs of Rome. Why? “People didn’t live half so long in the old days,” as the novelist Julian Barnes points out in Nothing to Be Frightened Of, his memoir of mortality. “Forty was doing very well, given pestilence and war, with the doctor as likely to kill as cure. To die from ‘a draining away of one’s strength caused by extreme old age’ was in Montaigne’s day a ‘rare, singular and extraordinary death.’ Nowadays we assume it as our right.”