Who’d call dat livin’?

Ian Glynn

  • The Quest for Immortality: Science at the Frontiers of Ageing by S. Jay Olshansky and Bruce A. Carnes
    Norton, 254 pp, £19.95, August 2001, ISBN 0 393 04836 5

As a role model, Methuselah is not ideal. Apart from his 969-year lifespan, almost all we know about him is that his first child, a son, was born when he was 187, and that he subsequently ‘begat sons and daughters’. We don’t know whether those first 187 years included a protracted adolescence, or how he fared towards the end of his life. Ira Gershwin’s splendidly execrable rhyme: ‘Who’d call dat livin’/When no gall’l give in/To no man what’s nine hundred years?’, suggests only one of many unenviable scenarios. Longevity is desirable only if the prolonged life is a happy one.

The same proviso applies even more to immortality – for, like diamonds, immortality is for ever. If you find one of the mythical fountains of youth, and reckon you can face the embarrassment of meeting your family and colleagues afterwards, you’d do well to strip off and bathe. (You may wonder whether you need to strip, but the charming detail from Giacomo Jaquerio’s painting that adorns the jacket of Jay Olshansky and Bruce Carnes’s book suggests that this is the convention.) Immortality is not synonymous with eternal youth, however, and Olshansky and Carnes remind us of one of the less well-known stories in Gulliver’s Travels. It involves a tiny minority in the country of the Luggnaggians, who are born with red dots on their foreheads and are known as Struldbrugs. The Struldbrugs are immortal, but to his great surprise Gulliver discovers that this is not a blessing but a curse. After the age of thirty they grow melancholy and dejected; when they are ninety their memories begin to fail and their teeth and hair to disappear; and eventually they become unable to keep up with changes in the language and cease to communicate. The modern moral is obvious.

Olshansky and Carnes are demographers, and, in spite of their book’s title, they are more concerned with mortality than immortality. Since it is mortality that we’re more likely to have to face, this is fair enough. Demography, though, is not the most charismatic of subjects and ‘tables of mortality’ are hardly come-hitherish – even if you tabulate the chances of surviving rather than of dying, and call them ‘life tables’. All the more credit to the authors, then, for managing in this slim volume directed at a lay audience – it is innocent of both references and graphs – to make the subject fascinating, and life tables exciting.

If this sounds over the top turn to the appendix. A four-page table shows the expected ‘years of life remaining’, and the ‘probability of living to your next birthday’, for American men and women at each age from birth to 110, in the year 2000. Without looking at the table, ask yourself how old the average American man and woman would have to be for their chances of surviving the following year to have fallen to 99, 90 or 50 per cent. If you then look at the table you will almost certainly find that your estimates are wildly out and much too gloomy. To have no more than a 99 per cent chance of surviving another year, the average American man has to be 57 and the average woman 62. For 90 per cent, the figures are 83 and 88. Most remarkably, for the chance of surviving another year to drop below 50 per cent, the average man must reach 108 and the average woman 109. (If this seems unbelievable, recollect that even if your chance of surviving each year remained at 50 per cent, your chance of surviving four years would be only 1 in 16, that is 1 in 24.) The expectation of life at birth is 73.5 years for male babies, 79.6 for female. These figures are for the US, but those for Western Europe, Australia or Japan would not be very different.

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Anne Enright wrote about Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells in the LRB of 13 April 2000.

[*] Anne Enright wrote about Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells in the LRB of 13 April 2000.