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Immortality is overrated

9 December 2011

Could we really stop ageing? And would we want to?

It used to be so simple. We were born, grew up and immediately started ageing. As we got older, our bodies grew more and more fragile and worn out until finally one day one of the vital system collapsed and we died.

Then, in 1939, two British statisticians* discovered something amazing: we only age until we’re 93 years old – after that the degenerative process stops completely. This was a truly paradigm-shifting discovery, but due to the looming war it went unnoticed by the rest of the scientific world and was quickly forgotten.

However, in 1992, the same phenomenon was observed in fruit flies. Two independent reports published in the journal Science described how the mortality rate rose exponentially for the first two weeks (as would be expected for an insect with a two-week lifespan), but then slowed down and stopped. The surviving flies kept on living for months, showing no sign of further ageing. And no matter what type of organism biologists studied, the same results could be observed. We just needed a big enough test population and large enough number of generations to see it.

The leading theory to explain all this is linking an organism’s ageing plateau with the age at which it stops reproducing; essentially, the sooner we stop being fertile, the sooner we stop ageing. It seem to have something to do with the evolutionary selective pressure somehow “bottoming out”, after which point no further selection takes place.

Yeah, this isn't really the face of immortality. Sorry.

So what could all this mean? Ok, it’s great that we stop aging after 93, but by then we’re already pretty old and life is beginning to lose some of its flavour. So what if we could get another 20-30 years after 93? Would we really want them?

Well, first of all: if we look at people in their 70s today they are considerably more healthy and active than 70-year-olds were 50 years ago. In another 20-30 years it’s not unthinkable that we could enjoy the same quality of live at 90. That would make any additional years look pretty promising and attractive (unless of course you’re already fed up with all this nonsense and long for an eternal cold sleep).

And secondly: people seem pretty obsessed with staying alive, no matter what the cost. So I believe only a very few would complain about getting an extra span of life, even in the advanced age of 93. Also, our almost religious belief in the advancement of medical science would keep many of us clinging to the hope that life could be made bearable even this late in life.

But most dramatic would be the socio-economic implications. If we were to live for 150 or even 200 years in reasonable health, there’s no way that we could all retire at 65. The population would then quickly become dominated by pensioners without any taxable income. This would obviously be unsupportable, so instead of being able to look forward to decades (or even centuries) of free time, practical necessities would force us to continue to work for perhaps another 100 years. Could you imagine working for 150 long years? How many different careers would that include? 20? 30? And how tired would you not be when at your 87th job interview at the respectable age of 163?

Nor this, unfortunately. I mean, just look at those ears! Nibbable.

So perhaps this living-for-ever malarkey isn’t all that. Not when we would have to work for most of the time. And also, since it’s only women who stop reproducing early in life, it would be only women who could expect to enjoy exceptionally long lives. Which would mean that once you reach the age of 110 there would only be women left in your generation, and unless you had a taste for toy-boys (70 or 80-year-old youngsters!), you’d have to either consider live-long celibacy or a drastic change to your sexual orientation. Yes, the majority of citizens in our future society would probably be lesbians.

To sum it up: a society of immortals wouldn’t necessarily consist of elves or vampires**. We might already be immortal (well, unless you’ve got a penis – sorry), and with improvements in medical care and overall mental and physical health, we could expect to end up in this utopia sooner than expected. But as always seem to be the case, the utopia might well turn out to be a dystopia. Perhaps living for ever is just too good to be true? Or at least too good to be enjoyable.

* In 1939, Major Greenwood and J.O. Irwin published in the journal Human Biology their discovery that women above 93 years old weren’t any more likely to die than 93-year-old women. Read about this and the more recent discoveries here.

** People are fascinated by vampires. Some even believe they are vampires themselves. Here’s a simple test to check if you’re one of them:

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 December 2011 09:12

    Dang it. I never really wanted to be a lesbian OR a vampire. The future holds NOTHING for me. Thanks.


  2. 9 December 2011 13:31

    I had already decided living for a really long time wouldn’t be as much fun as everyone else seemed to think. Thanks for backing me up!


    • 9 December 2011 13:36

      Yes, it’s going to be a real drag. But it will inevitably happen. Unless our society collapse in some horrific apocalypse, which fortunately seems more and more likely for each day that goes by!


  3. 9 December 2011 16:01

    You bring up quite a few rather important points. I’ve always wondered what the fascination with immortality was.

    I’m not remotely interested in ‘working for the man’ for another 120 years, and I doubt I’m alone in that.

    And never have considered the whole ‘got a penis’ thing as an affliction. Am not going to think about that for very long. Have already resolved to distract myself from that as soon as I press ‘Post Comment’. Right now.


    • 9 December 2011 17:40

      Sorry about that! I guess we could extend the lifespan of men as well by means of selective neutering. Perhaps we could device some kind of retrovirus to introduce mutations that would render any male over the age of 40 sterile? Over a number of generations, the selective pressure would bottom out and men would experience the same kind of non-aging effect as women.

      Certainly worth thinking about. *scribbling notes down in folder marked “After I take over the world”*



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