Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 March 2006
Issue No. 784
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Lubna Abdel-Aziz

Longevity, what are your charms?

Aging is a dirty word! No culture of this century admires, respects, or desires it. All of medical scientific thought is, directly or indirectly, dedicated to prolonging life, while simultaneously preserving youth. Youth pursuit is rampant at every age, even among the young. Our obsession with anti-ageing has propelled science and industry to treat, mend, resolve, or end it.

Click to view caption
The dread of ageing!

The first Anti-Ageing World Conference took place in 1992. The success of the Monte Carlo Anti-Ageing Conference in 2005, which attracted 3,000 doctors and scientists, gave rise to dozens of such conferences in 2006, sprouting in every corner of the globe, from Bali to London, from Tokyo to Florida. They are highly attended by hundreds of scientists and physicians, who seek ways to make the elderly live longer, or at the very least, look younger. Healthcare industries, pharmaceutical, medical, publishing books and periodicals, food and diet, exercise equipment and gyms, all focus on promoting youthfulness. Visions of youth and beauty seduce us daily, rendering us fearful of our mortality, and preoccupied with our appearance. Have we always sought the fountain of youth or is this a phenomenon of our modern age?

Our quest for long life and our fascination with remaining young, is indeed nothing new. Every age and every culture is loaded with rhetoric, illustrations and instructions on how to defy dying -- and yet eventually we all die! With more scientific knowledge and tools at our disposal, we have been able to prolong human life expectancy, by treating or replacing diseased organs. Will this keep us alive forever! Chances for that are less than zero, but living better and longer may well be within our reach. There are many qualifications and requirements, but the formula seems simple enough. Restrict your food intake and increase your physical activity. In other words: "eat less, exercise more". Are we applying it? We are in fact, reversing the process, with total disregard for guidance of health regimens. In most countries, the rate of obesity is rising, and so is the rate of inactivity. Yet, alas! We still wish to look younger and live longer.

We have accomplished some goals! During Roman times, life expectancy was 22-25 years. In 1900, the world life expectancy reached approximately 30 years, and by 1985 it had doubled to 62 years. Today it has risen to 64.3 years worldwide. The figure reaches 83 in some developed countries, like Japan and Singapore who enjoy the highest rates, while the US reached 77.7 years. In less developed countries like Sub-Saharan Africa, the rate drops to 33. Women will be happy to learn that in every country, they enjoy a higher life expectancy rate than men.

Whatever happened to the promise of Paradise?

Almost every religion provides for an ideal afterlife beyond this one, free of pain and suffering, overflowing with eternal happiness and contentment. This heavenly concept is both a spiritual and physical one, whether it is the Garden of Eden, Heaven, Jannah, Paradise, Valhalla, Nirvana, or whatever name we call it. The promise is the same with few variations, which makes one wonder whether it is not a man-made vision since it addresses basic human needs, or fulfils subconscious human desires. Faithful Christians are promised eternal salvation where they shall see God "face to face" and dwell with his Angels in spiritual peace. Good Muslims, will be rewarded with eternal life in a garden filled with heavenly delights so blissful, brimming with everlasting pleasures. In Judaism, heaven is God's abode where he welcomes the righteous and pious. In both Hinduism and Buddhism, existence is cyclical, making the rewards of a heaven, a temporary experience, until released from any form of rebirth, which is the highest objective. Of course, every paradise reserves entry only to the worthy, but do we strive to be worthy!

In an increasingly secular society, has our faith in the after-life become so diminished? Why do we so readily reject our religious consolation? Has Paradise lost some of its lustre? Why are we not so anxious to get there? The rapid rhythm of life and its transitoriness, provide a certain and immediate negative response, leading us to believe, that this life is all. We spend our time complaining of how miserable life is, and yet we exert every effort to prolong it. After all, who has ever returned from Heaven to give us first-hand information of the journey? Perhaps we simply fear the unknown. We know this life well; we know of no other.

Our newly deciphered genome map will eventually help us replace defective genes that produce disease, and in the future stem cells will rush to the rescue of a dying organ. Cosmetic surgery evolves regularly, in total dedication to keeping our physical looks youthful and slender. What more can we ask for from our weary world? Is not "this Wilderness, Paradise enow?"

If science and medicine can afford us a state of continuous life, of deathlessness, would we want to live forever? Is it even moral! Will our society some day not be able to distinguish between father, son or grandson? If science succeeds in conquering all disease, will this be humanity's dream come true, or its dreaded, horrific nightmare? Will it be a sign of human progress or human decadence? Maybe then the human race will self- destruct, only to start the cycle all over again.

It is easy to confuse longitude with latitude, quantity with quality. Meanwhile, here's to youth -- in heart, mind, spirit, and yes, even looks.

If man can, man shall -- and may God have mercy on us!

Strange is it not? that of the myriads who

Before us pass'd the door of Darkness through,

Not one returns to tell us of the Road,

Which to discover we must travel too.

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam (1048-1122)

Rendered into English by Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1883)

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