The Immortality Race

Social security faces possible disaster because a lot of people are living into their 80s and 90s. Meanwhile, the new number to beat is 100.

Whenever the president talks about Social Security, I think about the 5,000-Year-Old Woman. I can see her right now, cruising down some sunny highway in Florida in her convertible Mini Cooper, laughing into the wind.

The 5,000-Year-Old Woman is supposed to give us hope. But sometimes, she scares me.

Here we are talking about the federal retirement system facing possible disaster because a lot of people are living into their 80s and 90s. Meanwhile, out in the real world of science, medicine, and hypercompetitive Americans, 90 years old is already peanuts.

The new goal, the number to beat, is 100. And our great universities and media outlets are working overtime to tell us how it's done. You've seen the medical-news stories that now spew forth on a daily basis. Floss your teeth and prevent heart disease. Drink a little wine each day and fend off dementia. Stock up on saw palmetto pills to protect your prostate from deadly cancer. Take baby aspirin—it's a magic bullet. On and on it goes.

Normally skeptical journalists are reduced to goo by any news from the longevity frontier. Who cares if a lot of the science is dubious and contradictory? There's a massive audience for this stuff, and the media are only too happy to provide it, quality be damned. Now, with Baby Boomers on the verge of oldster-hood, there's a lot more to come.

Cautious longevity scientists say that it may soon become common for people to live up to 100 or 120 years. Bolder optimists extend it to 150. And there's the prominent inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, who takes 250 vitamins a day and co-authored the recent book Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. The book, which got serious coverage in elite media outlets, contends that if we can just all live another 20 or 30 years, we'll be in the age of "intelligent nanobots," tiny machines that will go into our bodies and eradicate all disease and damage, allowing us, potentially, to live forever.

Between these extremes is a Cambridge University scientist named Aubrey de Grey, who has said that people born in the next century (i.e., beginning 95 years from now) may have a life span of 5,000 years. Since women tend to live longer than men, it's safest to imagine this astonishing life span first being enjoyed by a female.

The 5,000-Year-Old Woman! Think of all the men she could run through in a life that long. She'd send the Social Security system into a tailspin, no matter how carefully President Bush manages to reform it. And she'd be living out the American Dream over and over—endless careers, centuries of multitasking. She could keep the same cellphone number across the millennia.

The first generation that will shoot for this dream has always lived obsessively. When they were young, it was all about making love, not war, and living in a commune. Then they wanted to get filthy rich on Wall Street and move to a gated community. Their current obsession is looking good and having great sex into old age—thus the Botox and plastic-surgery booms, and Viagra.

Now they will start trying in earnest to become what the Harvard Health Letter recently called "Aging Superstars," i.e., people who live a century or more. Forget about fame, prizes, net worth. Those things are all nice, but in the brave new demographic future, real success will be an obituary that reads, "John Q. Boomer Dies at 108."

The race for the three-figure obit has already begun. This spring, a high-profile research team called LifeQuest Expedition, partly sponsored by the U.S. government, will travel to "longevity hot spots" around the world—places like Okinawa, Japan, and the Italian island of Sardinia, where unusually large numbers of people live past 100. The LifeQuest team will collect data about how these people become such "successful agers," and will report back to the American public. A Web site about the project promises it will result in a new "Longevity Management Tool designed to increase life expectancy."

But how? One longevity hot spot is Nova Scotia, and Dr. Thomas Perls, the lead LifeQuest scientist, told a Canadian news outlet that it may be the seafood they eat up there. "Fish could be a very big deal," Perls said. "You could have a bunch of people who have the right genes that get them to their 90s, whose fish-heavy diets then increased their life expectancy further."

But as Perls and others have pointed out, longevity has many causes. Genes, diet, and socioeconomics all seem to play roles, among other factors. If you want to make it to a century, the trick is to pull a winning lottery number in every single category.

There's no way we're going to leave this to the luck of the draw, not in the can-do kingdom. A burgeoning longevity industry will offer instruction to those who'd like to fix the game in their favor. And who wouldn't? After all, according to that Canadian report, scientists have already used genetics to increase the life spans of yeast, roundworms, and fruit flies.

A few more years in the life of a yeast culture doesn't spell much fun, but you know Americans. We'll be gunning to beat out the roundworms and the fruit flies, too. We'll make the most of our extremely long lives, even if it kills us.