Quality over quantity

Staying alive longer is only worth it if the quality of life itself is valuable, writes Eva Wiseman.

We always ask very old people what their secret is. "Laughter", some say.

Olive oil, sex, cigarettes — I picture the tight smile on the centenarian’s face as they roll out their little line every birthday — rum, cold swims, early nights — when presumably, the secret is always, "Don’t die". And now of course, that question has been repackaged and spotlit, with the longevity market, propelled by the tech industry, expected to be worth $44.2billion by 2030.

It’s funny, one day you’re a young nerd writing BOOBS on a calculator, the next you’re a middle-aged billionaire wearing an erection-tracking ring and sucking blood from teenagers in order to live forever. So goes the modern career of the "tech bro", the people who made their money designing apps so dull they can’t be described in language, then spend that money on becoming God.

It bothers me. It bothers me!

Not longevity research itself necessarily, the investment into preventing fatal diseases — no, please, go wild on that — but the grim, empty attempts to extend the lives of people who already have everything.

As a woman born with eyes and skin, I believe I have some insight into the longevity market, as it shares its promise of eternal youth with our old pal the beauty industry. And isn’t much of this simply anti-ageing in a new dress?

Bryan Johnson is the middle-aged biotech entrepreneur behind the "Don’t Die" movement. There have been countless profiles detailing his attempts to live forever: how he wakes at 4.30am and gets bone marrow transplants and sells something called a protein-rich Nutty Pudding for $79. But the "problems" people like Johnson are attempting to fix are deeply familiar — they are the problems associated with remaining alive. They are the problems associated with the ways a body changes, but instead of leading with the exterior evidence of decay, like "fine lines and wrinkles", it foregrounds the interior.

By calling it longevity, rather than anti-ageing, it draws in the kinds of people previously less likely to spend time thinking about how to "get your rosy tone back".

These are the people researching algorithms that will make you immortal, and dabbling in gene therapy, and eating only hummus.

But one reason there is such a market for all these life-extending products beyond just the billionaires, and why the wellness industry continues to grow and mutate, is because so many people feel uncared for and desperate; wellness exploits our loneliness. Longevity, as part of that industry, is profitable because of fear. The fear is not just that when we die we will disappear, it’s that as we age we are forgotten. And companies are making billions selling products containing blueberries to make us feel like we’re in control of our own mortality.

What is still not clear to me though, is quite why these longevity-seekers want to stay alive.

It feels like a kind of thankless race, rooted in fear of death, rather than a celebration of life. A solemn, panicked, hydrated scramble up hill. Is this what life is for? Simply trying not to die?

Staying alive longer is surely only worth it if the quality of life itself is valuable. Perhaps it is a bore to say, perhaps it seems backward-looking, but instead of halting the ageing process, surely we should be concentrating on improving communities for those alive today. And instead of extending the lives of a few to 120, we should be focusing on extending the lives of all the many millions of people across the world who risk dying before they reach their 30s. We are looking the wrong way.

Isn’t it a shame though, that our descendants are destined to meet only the most awful people of our generation? Instead of the jolly smokers, noon risers or the guys that trade in bad fun, instead of the mates that have ice cream for breakfast, or who come alive after three pints on a warm evening, or the Big Mac artists, or the ones that stay up all night moaning on WhatsApp, or the girls with mad laughs, they’ll have a handful of the whitest, most divorced men in the world. These optimised 100-year-olds, their bodies sculpted like Lion bars, their eyes staring redly out at a land made of vitamins and serums — these are the people we’re handing down with a watch in our will.

And though their flesh looks young and their hair is thick, their opinions, tastes and ideas will all be deeply, impossibly, obscenely old. God, can’t you just picture the world they will create for themselves? An underground retirement home of men playing Candy Crush while hooked up to the veins of teenage boys who get thinner and thinner despite eating troughs of liver and kale, a house remix of a Coldplay classic piped gently through the walls.

Personally, I am all for quality of life over quantity; 80 long summers sounds good, 15 or so perfect novels to read and prestige reality TV, and a soupcon of peril, and lust. A handful of mischievous friends, love, a pool in the shade, that sort of thing. One delicious piece of gossip, I’ve found, can keep you going for at least a decade. I’d always choose pleasure and its associated sins over the chance to live longer than my family and peers, if only so that I wasn’t destined to face a life of perpetual grief, which I don’t think is any kind of life at all. I imagine few would disagree, and yet we are being led blindly into a future where we, healthy human beings, don’t question the impulse to prolong, to put off, to push at the edges of time. It seems to me that the only people who really want to live forever are those who are unable to find joy in the lives they’re living now.

— The Observer