Living to 120

Libby Znaimer | April 22nd, 2014

I wouldn’t waste a moment’s thought on it, but it seems to be the hot-button question of the moment in the ongoing debate on longevity. “Do you want to live to 120?” The Pew Research Center recently conducted extensive surveys on this question, as did CARP.

“Research aimed at unlocking the secrets of aging is under way at universities and corporate labs, and religious leaders, bioethicists and philosophers have begun to think about the morality of radical life extension,” Pew Research wrote in its report, which says Americans “see peril as well as promise in biomedical advances, and more think it would be a bad thing than a good thing for society if people lived decades longer than is possible today.”

And the older the people, the more they see the negative. I recently attended an amazing event at St. Hilda’s Retirement Residence and Assisted Living facility in Toronto. It was a birthday party for 14 residents aged 100 to 105. Yes, 14 residents – a staggering number, which prompted me to down as much of St. Hilda’s tap water as I could while visiting. The oldest among this cohort seemed to be in the best shape. At 105, Ida Hall seemed completely together: alert, well-dressed, no-nonsense and not inclined to suffer fools. She did not have any “secrets” to share and attributed her longevity to good genes. When her daughter Carol, a 75-year-old beauty who looks at least 20 years younger, went over to give her mother a hug, our cameras caught Ida saying: “I’m sick of answering all the silly questions they keep asking me.”

But she was gracious enough to respond. Would she like to live to 120? “I don’t like living this long, I’d sooner pass earlier. My husband died, and I was very lonely. I don’t feel I have that much to live for.” Ida is in excellent shape, admitting only to the kind of aches and pains most of us have. She’s part of a caring community and has a loving family. Carol tells me she was lawn bowling and square dancing into her 90s and also a Life Master bridge player. “Now, she feels she’s a burden because she can’t do things for herself,” Carol said. “She can’t drive anymore.”

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Eva Altay, a 102-year-old who emigrated from Hungary in 1957, seems a lot happier. “I think I’m blessed. It’s a wonderful thing that I can accept what I have. Fortunately, my memory is still good,” she told me. Eva says she’s happy because she has peace, no worries and an affectionate family that wants her to stay around. And she does have a “secret” to pass along: “Have a very positive attitude!”

So does Eva want to live to 120? “No way – another year would be plenty!” Her short-term memory is starting to go, she doesn’t hear or converse well enough to maintain the kind of close friendships she’s had in her 20 years at St. Hilda’s. Never mind that she expressed this to me with total clarity.

Susan Eng, CARP’s VP of Advocacy, says the question would be better posed to people who are younger, looking at a much longer perspective – people who can hope to be around when 120 will be the new 80 or 90. CARP’s respondents were 70 on average, and less than 10 per cent wanted to live to 120. The sweet spot is the mid-90s age range, which is already more than the actuaries predict for most of us. We all know at least a few people in good shape at that age, so it’s like wishing for the best possible scenario in current context – without being greedy or crazy.

The biggest concern about living longer is health. My own history of cancer is the reason I can’t picture myself in Ida’s or Eva’s place, let alone two decades older. The irony is their health doesn’t seem to be the problem. What’s missing is something else. After the longevity scientists learn how to lengthen our telomeres and replace our worn-out parts, they will have to perform a more difficult alchemy – rekindling the appetite for life.