Culture Magazine

Getting Old

By Conroy @conroyandtheman
by Conroy

Getting Old

Jeanne Calment - the oldest person on record (122 yrs.)

What if we never had to get old? A couple of days ago I keptencountering this theme. First, there was a minor headline on the cover of thispast week’s edition of The Economistthat hinted at an answer to this most captivating of questions. I was immediatelyintrigued and excitedly flipped through the magazine to find the article. Mymind was alive with thoughts of about staying forever young, about immortality.Alas, and not surprisingly despite my silly reaction, the article relatedemerging science that promised considerably less.
Read the article for the specific details, but experiments in mice haveshown that counteracting certain genes in cells that have reached theirbiological age limit can check some of the deterioration associated with aging.Someday, it is hoped, these types of approaches could be used to ease theeffects of senescence in humans. I hope, for not entirely selfish reasons, somedaycomes sooner rather than later.
Then, by sheer coincidence, I was re-reading a portion of James Joyce’sUlysses – searching for a remembered (different)passage – when I rediscovered thefollowing paragraphs (it’s a longish excerpt, but worth it [1]):

What spectacle confronted themwhen they, from the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, fromobscurity by passage from the rere of the house into the penumbra of thegarden?
The heaventree of stars hung withhumid nightblue fruit. [2]
With what meditations did Bloomaccompany his demonstration to his companion of various constellations?
Meditations of evolutionincreasingly vaster: of the moon invisible in incipent lunation, approachingperigee: of the infinite lattiginous scintillating uncondensed milky way,discernible by daylight by an observer placed at the lower end of a cylindricalvertical shaft 5000 ft deep sunk from the surface towards the center of theearth: of Sirius (alpha in Canis Major) 10 lightyears (57,000,000,000,000 miles)distant and in volume 900 times the dimension of our planet: of Arcturus: ofthe precession of equinoxes: of Orion with belt and sextuple sun theta andnebula in which 100 of our solar systems could be contained: of moribund and ofnascent new stars such as Nova in 1901: of our system plunging towards theconstellation of Hercules: of the parallax or parallactic drift of so calledfixed stars, in reality evermoving from immeasurably remote eons to infinitelyremote futures in comparison with whichthe years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis ofinfinitesimal brevity.

And then by further coincidence, I flipped on the television and caughtthe very end of Rocky III, where in amore succinct and less inflated way than Joyce, Apollo Creed [3] saysto Rocky, in a fleeting reflective aside about the waning of his onceoverwhelming physical skills:
"You know Stallion?  It's too bad we gotta get old."
And so my mind settled on the sad fact of getting old and mortality.Happy thoughts, I know, but ones we’re all apt to brood over from time totime.
I’m 31-years-old, and I still throb with the vigor of youth [4]. Butin the coming years the signs of aging are going to appear. We all know thesesigns: decreasing speed, dexterity, and reaction time; graying hair; balding(for men); wrinkles; weight gain; loss of muscle mass and bone density; lowersex drive; flagging energy; arthritis; deteriorating vision and hearing; lossof collagen that makes your skin all droopy and inelastic; age spots;age-related illnesses like heart disease; memory loss, and maybe dementia. Justthink of your grandparents. Nothing that you look forward to, all things youwant to delay as long as possible. It’s not a pretty picture. Just comparethe following two photographs.
Getting Old
 Robert Redford in his early 30s
Getting Old
 Robert Redford in his mid-70s
(Of course I’m planning (read: hoping) to age well, like Paul Newman orCary Grant. No one has actually laughed when I’ve suggested this, which is niceof them.)
And then somewhere along the arc of aging, we die. Aging and death arecruel facts, especially for intelligent life. It’s cruel that humans canwitness our senescence and contemplate our physical demise. But, contemplationis the first step to understanding, which is where we stand; thereare several theories about why we age:
  • Cell division limits. Thecells that comprise many of our body systems have a limit on the number oftimes they can divide. This is because each division results in the loss ofsome cell information, and as a critical point is reached, cells can’t divide.The biological reason is sound. The more times a cell divides the more chancesfor a mutation. Unlimited cell divisions would greatly increase the risk ofcancer. So cells have a built-in (imperfect) anti-cancer mechanism.Unfortunately the result is that after a cell reaches its division limit, itwill age. As it ages it degrades and the mechanisms for maintenance, repair, anddefense breakdown. Your cells get old. 
  • Evolution. There is aconcept call extrinsic mortality that states the longer an organism is alive,the higher the chances it will die from an external cause (predation, disease,accident, etc.). Hence, it’s more important from an evolutionary perspectivethat an individual be strong and able to reproduce when young (when it’s morelikely to still be alive) than when it’s old (and less likely to be alive). Soevolution has favored genes based on how strong and fit they allow anindividual to be when young (strongly selected by nature) compared to thosethat extend an individual’s lifespan (weakly selected by nature). Some genesmay result in strong and fit bodies when young but have deleterious effects inthe longer-term. That’s nature favoring the species over the individual. Thistheory of aging is supported by the fact that prey species tend to have shorterlives then predator species, especially in zoos. Prey species have a higherextrinsic mortality (they get eaten) and so are evolved to reproduce when quiteyoung and not fit for a long lifespan. 
  • Environment. There areelements in the environment that can damage our DNA. Things like free radicalsthat are released into our body with every breath, sugar build-up in cells, andexternal radiation. 
  • Systems failure. Our body ismade up of many complex parts, of systems. General systems theory  (all system not just the biological) statesthat systems will tend to fail more over time – to age – even if they arecomposed of non-aging components. So basically our bodies will start tobreakdown, to fail, as time goes on. 

Probably human aging is the result of all of these, and maybe others.In any case, it seems that complex life is bound to lose when fighting nature.The Second Law of Thermodynamics – entropy – says that nature progresses fromconcentrated to diffused, from order to disorder. And higher life, like humans,is definitely a highly organized form of biological matter. It’s only a matterof time before something, be it errors in cell division, environmental stresses,glitches in the body’s routine processes, or the hazards of nature, conspire todisorganize us. For the true miracles of life and consciousness we are bound to senescence and death.
Stay Young
I can’t count the number oftimes I’ve been told, by elder relatives, or the grandparents of friends, by coworkers,or plain old strangers (literally strangers that are old), to “don’t get old.”On its own this specific (and entirely) unsolicited advice is sound, all things considered, I’d prefer not to get old. But not one person offering the “don’tget old” guidance has followed up with concrete approaches to actually avoidgetting old, and really, that’s the most important part. It’s all well andgood to advise against aging, but then you have to back it up with how that can be accomplished.
So lacking any outside help, I’ve developed myown list of possible measures (you can judge the likely effectiveness,reasonableness, and feasibility):
  • Exercise and diet. This approachhas the positive quality of being doable, but the negative of not actuallykeeping you youthful forever. Nevertheless, consistent and well-roundedexercise and a conscientious diet can keep you trim, your muscles and bonesstrong, and your heart fit, and plenty of other positive side effects. There’slots of mitigating factors in aging [5], but all else being equal, regular exerciseand good diet will keep you healthier longer. 
  • Negligible senescence. Wecan count on science to unlock the details of aging. To figure out how to controlthe negative effects of cells reaching their division limit; to moderate or turnoff genes that promote aging, and turn on those that keep us young; and reversethe effects of environmental factors like free radicals. These ideas might bebordering on science fiction, but surely some scientific advances can help usslow the effects of aging (see TheEconomist article noted above). Likely, the future will bringfuller understanding, but limited solutions. I’m reminded of the movie Blade Runner [6]. The android “replicants,” aredriven to dangerous limits by their very human desire to eliminate theirbuilt-in termination dates, only to realize that the best science and theknowledge of the very engineers that created them is helpless against the factsof aging.  
  • Computer brain. Maybe some brilliantscientists will develop a method to download our human consciousness (includingknowledge, memory, etc.) from our time-limited bodies to theoretically timelesscomputers. (Now we’re firmly in science fiction territory.) Impossible? Maybe,and I offer no possible ideas on how this might work, but the promise ofimmortality – even a greatly distorted and strange one like existing inside acomputer network – is a tantalizing dream. 
  • Dorian Gray. Or one couldchoose to make a Faustian deal like Wilde’s Dorian Gray. (This isn’t even science fiction.) Gain permanent youthfor the price of their soul. A deal worth making? 
  • The Fountain of Youth. Or,at last resort, we can head to Florida and search for the Fountain of Youththat Ponce de Leon never found [7]. Sometimes legends are true. 

Getting Old

Dorian Gray and his picture

Okay, so the last few ideas are…less likely…but thoughts of aging anddeath lead to some desperate ideas. The three score and ten years (plus somehopefully) of allotted human life are infinitesimally brief in the scheme ofit all. Where’s the justice in that? It’s too bad we gotta get old.
[1]This passage is taken from midway through the “Ithaca” episode, near the end ofthe novel. This episode features a style of an impersonal scientific catechism and,according to Stuart Gilbert, was Joyce’s favorite. 
[2]This long excerpt also allows me to get this gorgeous line of prose into apost; Joyce made magic with words.
[3]Apollo Creed is of course an entirely fictional character, and as written, oneof limited depth. But all credit to Carl Weathers for breathing life into thecharacter. His Creed ended up being one of the highlights of the Rocky seriesand his absence, starting from the second half of Rocky IV, greatly, and negatively, affected the final three movies.His quote at the end of Rocky III isprobably up there with the fantastic end of the fight in Rocky as the best moments of the entire series (and I mean that).
[4]And for some years to come hopefully.
[5]Like stress for one. You could cut out all forms of stress. Don’t have anykids, maybe avoid marriage, and eschew any serious responsibility at work. Infact, avoid responsibilities of all kinds. However, this approach seemsself-defeating. It’s fine to limit stress, but you want to live your life – to engagein the struggle – and stay young.
[6]Blade Runner is one of the bestscience fiction movies. It’s remarkably rendered near-future ultra-bleak LosAngeles is the perfect setting for a story about what it means to be human, tolive and die, to love and connect in a technologically dominated world. Thismay sound like a well-worn and overstated take on the movie, but I challengeyou to not empathize with the plight of the replicants, especially as Roy(portrayed ominously by Rutger Hauer) states at the end: “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the darkness at Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time like tears in the rain. Time to die."
[7]Is it any coincidence that Florida is a preeminent retirement destination? Myparents are part of the huge and growing cohort that have chosen Florida as thehome for their later years (hopefully many many more – their only in theirearly 60s). Judging by how joyful they seem, what appears to be a non-stop lifestyle, andthe enviable climate, they may have found the Fountain of Youth right in theheart of Sumter County.

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