One of my misgivings at the start of the project was whether the question I was asking, “What difference would it make if we never died?”, was something completely irrelevant in modern life, and whether the notion of immortality was one to be considered only in the traditional context of religious belief, science fiction and fantasy. It was important, I decided, to explore the science behind the notion, and to find out what those people involved in science and medicine believe.
A quick Google search asking “can humans live forever?” throws up a whole page of articles discussing this very question from various perspectives, reassuring me that I’m not the only person thinking about it, and further encouragement comes from the very serious consideration being given to questions around super-longevity and regenerative medicine by bio-ethicists, medics and philosophers. Alison Woollard in her 2013 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures titled her final lecture, “Could I live forever?“, Professor John Harris in his book “Enhancing Evolution” dedicates a whole chapter to immortality.
Naively, ignorantly perhaps, before I began to explore these ideas, I didn’t make the link between the quest for immortality and the science of ageing. I suppose I always thought of anti-ageing as being about cranky therapies, expensive beauty treatments and cosmetic surgery. How mistaken I was. An adviser quickly introduced me to gerontology – the study of ageing.
I’ve just started listening to a series from The Reith Lectures, presented by gerontologist Tom Kirkwood and entitled The End of Age. These lectures were recorded in 2001 – 13 years ago. I had no idea that this had been such a hot topic for so long. The introduction to the lectures spells out in no uncertain terms that “We know now that ageing is neither inevitable nor necessary. We now understand that our cells are not programmed with some unavoidable sell-by date; we are not programmed to die” and although Professor Kirkwood warns against the idea of a “fountain of youth” and indulging in “fanciful and unrealistic speculation”, he makes it very clear than in an age of ever-increasing life expectancy, “New scientific understanding means that we can never think of ageing in the same way again.” He goes on, “Our longer lives are carrying us into new territory for which we need to plan and prepare. We cannot afford to be complacent. If we ignore the implications of the longevity revolution …. If we fail to plan for the radically different world that will soon surround us, then crisis will be upon us and our bright dreams of a brave old world will surely fade and die.”
Yes, it matters.