Sun, Feb 26, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Longer life spans are a gray area

Many of us can expect to live to more than 100, but until we learn to value old age, that's nothing in this to celebrate


Immortality has its limits. While indispensable to Greek goddesses, it might seem less attractive to pensioners with double cataracts and leaking roofs. Nonetheless, we are heading towards extravagantly long existence. Soon, reaching 100 will be normal. Some scientists predict lifespans of 1,000 years or more.

This brush with the eternal does seem wasted, on the British at any rate. Anyone doubting that ageism is our biggest prejudice need look no further than the British actress Francesca Annis. Annis has separated from Ralph Fiennes, her partner of 11 years. In the normal run of celebrity gossip, Fiennes, who had an affair with a singer, would have been branded a "love cheat." This time, though, the media threw in a mitigating factor: her age.

Annis is 61; her former partner is 43. So obviously, some newspapers hinted, the rift was all her fault for being so antiquated. One report quoted an unnamed friend as saying she felt she was "hurtling towards old age." Presumably, no such gloom assailed J Howard Marshall when, at 89, he married Anna Nicole Smith, a topless dancer of 26, whose fight for her late husband's multibillion oil fortune reaches the US Supreme Court this month.

While few perceived Marshall as Romeo on crutches, many older men live with young partners without being parodied as Viagra-popping Methuselahs scavenging for lost youth. Older women, conversely, get pity from a media that think anyone over 45 must be as seductive as the Turin shroud.

Soon, though, perhaps Annis will look positively juvenile and people in their 80s merely middle aged. Last week, the British government's actuary department reported that, by 2074, 1.2 million Britons will live to be 100 and that many thousands of thirtysomethings will reach 110.

Obviously, bird flu or another plague could intervene, but demographers usually play safe. Life expectancy has now risen by two years in every decade of the last half century: Today's average span, around 75 for a man and 80 for a woman, may soon seem a fruit-fly existence, especially if you believe more extravagant predictions.

Aubrey de Grey, the biogerontologist interviewed in a new Demos pamphlet, Better Humans?, predicts lifespans of 1,000 years. No need to wait too long, either, for miracles of nanotechnology or molecular science. De Grey thinks the first millenarian could just be turning 60.

Politicians must hope he is wrong. In the UK, despite warnings from the charity Age Concern, long life has ambushed the government.

One in five pensioners in the UK lives in poverty, over-60s already well outnumber children and pensions policy is in shambles. Forget the recent modest proposal that retirement age should rise to 69 within 40 years. People may soon be working to 80. The crisis can only be averted, some think, by baby boomers, a cohort powerful enough to decide the next election. If they take time off from bungee-jumping to campaign for social justice, then government may have to cater for extended life. Whether society can do so is another matter.

Take de Grey's 1,000-year estimate. This seems an obscene amount of life, compared with, say, the average Zimbabwean, who can expect to live to 39. It also looks like a cold victory for science.

God and the afterlife are being traded in for an engineered hereafter, in which you can spend a near-eternity in incontinence pants, forgetting your own name and going on grim bus tours of the countryside.

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