Getting Ready to
Waste Time Again
Once again, an approaching New Year drives us to look back at the past 360-plus days with either a zealous eye or through a hazy recollection. While neither is enough to recant what was told in haste or recall what has set sail, we’ll still attempt to rescue some moments from oblivion.
It’s also a time when the human quest for immortality reaches a feverish pitch. While as a civilization, it may be a natural aim to pursue our destiny till the bitter end, as an individual quest, it’s just a fool’s errand to want to be the one who lasts after everyone else’s gone.
For in the longevity front, most certainties fall short of purpose. Knowing what keeps our bodies working at optimal levels is always a better way to live, than planning to survive at a time when all our loved ones have already succumbed. Without others to share it, the dream of living is a folly.
In 2012, two stories about longevity have dominated the news cycle for a short while: one about the people of the Greek island of Ikaria, and the other about 14th century Korean eunuchs. In common, both groups have outlasted most of their contemporaries. But as in most things in life, their secret is a dramatic tradeoff.
The year was also marked by a Max Plank Institute study, which concluded that longevity has in fact increased by 150 percent over the past two centuries, mainly due to improved food variety and advances in medical technology. And by the story about a so-called ‘Russian mogul,’ Dmitry Itskow, and his 2045 Initiative.
Itskow, who apparently is not a scientist, is said to be willing to fund the manufacturing of three successive robots: one controlled by brain interface; another housing a real human one; and a third with an artificial kind of encephalic mass. The last stage of his project would be to create ‘holographic avatars,’ to carry a person’s ‘intelligence’ or sense of awareness, whichever is more convenient.
THE FOLLY & FALL OF ICARUS
From China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang, 200 years BCE, to Spaniard Juan Ponce the Leon, 15 centuries later, through countless others, our eternal quest for undying life, or to live forever, or the very search for the Fountain of Youth has always met a most inglorious end, and at times, was emblematic of our ignorance about what life is really about.
Their quest is echoed by some of our own contemporaries, who won’t be deterred by the shortcomings of the medicine of our time, and hope to be rescued by the one practiced in the future. They’re ready to store their lifeless heads on ice, so to wait to be revived, and all we can say about it is, good luck with all that.
As every new year ages us, and the person in the mirror matches less and less the inner image we have of ourselves, we wonder what would it be to remain constant, as everything around us decays and dies. In the end, though, those moments only add to the massive amount of time we waste, instead of living life to its fullest.
In that way, our obsession to everlasting life, and since we’re at it, may we please have one full of youth too? resembles that of the son of Daedalus, Icarus, in Greek Mythology. As you may know, he drowned after flying too close to the sun and having his wax wings melted by the heat. His error was not to aim at flying high, but to get inebriated with the giddiness of flying.
THE ISLAND OF CONSTANT LIFE
The ocean where Icarus drowned is the same that surrounds Ikaria (often spelled with ‘C’ too), in the Aegean Sea. For years, Dan Buettner, who wrote the story for the NYTimes, has been researching places where people live longest. He and his team found first the Sardinia’s Nuoro province, where the world’s highest concentration of male centenarians live.
Then, the island of Okinawa, where the world’s longest-lived women are found; the Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula population with a lower-than-normal rate of middle-age mortality; and a group of Adventists in Loma Linda, Calif., whose life expectancy exceeds the American average by about a decade.
But in Ikaria, they found 75 nonagenarians (of reported 164 who were over 90 in 1999), who still work, have a paced but healthful life, sleep a lot, take it all easy, and, above all, had the mental agility of people half their age. Apart from climate and geographic conditions, there was one thing they all seem to share: a plant-based diet.
Along with generous glasses of wine a few times a day, they all eat the basic Mediterranean diet, ‘rich in olive oil and vegetables, and low in dairy (except goat’s milk) and meat products,’ according to Buettner. And they eat mostly what they grow too, such as potatoes, beans (garbanzo, black-eyed peas and lentils), wild greens and locally produced goat milk and honey.
Besides their diet (and also what they don’t eat, such as white sugar or flour, for instance), there were two other factors a separate research concluded may contribute to the Ikarians’ longevity and of all elderly Greeks, for that matter: plenty of napping and a surprisingly active sex life way after their 70s.
Buettner says that ‘there’s no silver bullet to keep death and the diseases of old age at bay.’ But what the story didn’t have to mention was the fact that in Ikaria, stress is a meaningless word. There’s no TV, nor Internet or cellphones, hardly any computers, and everybody needs to walk to get anywhere.
As the globalization creeps in, and younger generations are starting to adopt the sugar and salt-laden western food habits, it’s clear that once the elders are gone, the combination of factors that made them live so long will likely disappear too. In the meantime, as an 101-year-old woman says, ‘we just forget to die.’
THE OTHER WAY OF LIVING LONGER
Then, there are the eunuchs from the Chosun dynasty, which dominated the Korean Peninsula from late 1300s to the early 20th century. Being a class of nobles, eunuchs enjoyed certain privileges as guards employed at the royal palace. They adopted castrated boys to preserve their lineage, and with a lot of time in their hands, also kept detailed genealogical records.
Such records served as the basis for a study conducted by Kyung-Jin Min of Inha University and Cheol-Koo Lee of Korea University, who combined them with other historical accounts. They found that eunuchs lived to 70 on average, or 14 to 19 years longer than other men of similar social status.
In a universe of 81 eunuchs, the researchers identified three who lived to be 100 or more, which gives the group an impossible centenarian rate of 130 times that in developed nations today. Then again, there’s that pesky matter of the tradeoff such a longevity rate cost those outstanding Korean citizens.
After all, besides that generally eunuchs did not live in the palaces where they worked, there’s an obvious traumatic event in their lives to discount, so to speak, all the pleasures a long and (almost) healthy life may have in store. Drs. Kyung-Jin and Cheol-Koo also alluded to another theory that could’ve accounted to their longevity.
Previous studies with female mammals, for example, indicated that they may in average live longer than males because ‘testosterone weakens the immune system and can increase the chances of heart disease.’ It’s also long known that castration typically prolongs lifespan in animals, even though studies conducted with people have been inconclusive.
Inconclusive too, is whether the tradeoff is really worth the effort. We bet that this is not what those who wish to be resuscitated in the future have in mind. But it’s also obvious that they could never apply to a Ikaria-style of longevity either; we fear they would be simply unable to ignore their cellphones and the world calling them back to the fray.
THE LAST BREATH WON’T BE TELEVISED
At the end of the day, or rather of yet another year, how good may have been our lives, if all we did was in preparation for it to last forever? So busy we’d get, given a chance, managing our arrangements for the future, that the present would most likely have passed us by, without notice.
As the quest to know what happens after death usually consumes many to do despicable things to survive that moment or, at least, to guarantee a luxury place in the Great Beyond, the wish to last forever is bound to distract anyone from what’s really important. Oh, don’t expect us to tell you what it is. Each one of us should know at every moment, and no two would be alike.
In the meantime, people at Ikaria are probably taking a restful nap, as we stress all over the new year. We also suspect that the eunuchs were not too obsessed about what they had lost, or too boastful because they’d usually outlast their kings and lords. Whatever it was, something tells us that those records gave them much more pride than any of the other stuff.
Despite what most of us would be concerned about, if we were them, they were busy keeping an eye in the future, taking precise notes about their ancestry, and making sure people seven centuries ahead of them would still know about their lives and how they enjoyed their moments on this planet.
Probably one of the main things we should all be fine about this life is how transitory, and elusive, and precious, and brief it really is. Ideally there wouldn’t be any time to do 90% of the stuff we spend our days doing. And yet, when the moment would come, we should all be fine that it’s all over and there’s no turning back.
We digress, of course. We’re most likely the kind who frets about nothing, and wonders about everything. Who pretends that nothing is important, and yet secretly envies everyone else. We may exude confidence, but deep down, there’s none. It’s another year, and it only feels as if we may have wasted it all over again.
We’re not proud to share with you, reader, a suspicion we bring from the cradle: when that moment comes, we most certainly will try to bargain, and say it’s not possible, and try to hold on to what, so far, has been a rich but utterly nonsensical quest to make an imprint on this world. We’re probably the kind who won’t leave any useful signs for others to follow.
Regardless of that, Happy New Year to you all.
* Ways to Go
* Disposal Economics