This article’s contributor is Barry J Gibb, whose odd career began as a molecular biologist and neuroscientist but he succumbed to creative urges and started freelancing as a hybrid film maker and writer.
Do you want to live to 100? 1,000? What about for ever? Meet a man seeking immortality, leading age-research scientists, the very young and the very old as they grapple with deciding what is the right age to die in Until, a journey of the lifetime.
The human lifespan is increasing by five hours a day – every day. But how much life is enough? What if society reached a point where individuals could essentially choose how long they lived? At what age would people decide to call it a day, meet their maker and embrace death? And, for those reaching towards immortality, what would they do with their infinite time?
These are the profound questions explored in Until. Part science, part philosophy, this film invites us all to ask just one question: would I want to live for ever?
[Music, sounds of children playing]
Professor Tom Kirkwood: You know, sort of when you are full of life and you enjoy the things that you do, the activities, you enjoy the relationships you have, then the devastating realisation strikes you every now and then that it’s got to come to an end is just truly awful.
Teacher: How old is an old person?
Girl 1: Probably about 18.
Barry (film maker): How old are you?
Jeane: I’ll be 85 in October.
Professor Dame Linda Partridge: You know, I’m so curious to see how it’s all going to work out, and of course I’m not going to, at a certain point I’m going to stop seeing.
Girl 2: I would say getting older is like probably about after 37.
Boy 1: I think it’s when you’re about 20 or something, because you get a job and everything and then you finish university, so then you’ve basically got an experience.
Dr David Gems: I think the answer to the question would depend on whether I was able to develop as an individual in radically new ways. I think if I remained the same person, very much fixed in identity, I think at some point I’d probably decide to take my own life.
Teacher: So if you could live to any age, if you could live to any age, what would it be?
Boy 3: I know.
Girl 1: Oh I would want…
Woman 4: 18th of July I will be 86.
Brian: Sixty-seven now, yes, 68 in November, no sorry December, the 24th, Christmas Eve. [Laughs]
Girl 2: You have to do the same things as you are as younger and it’s much easier doing the same things when you’re younger because you’re more fit.
Jeane: Your brain tells you you can but your body tells you you can’t. [Laughs]
Girl 2: You need sometimes a little bit of help and it’s not always there.
Woman: It’s like you can’t do any more what you used to do and so you fall asleep.
Girl 1: You get problems like kidney problems and heart.
Boy 2: Dementia.
Teacher: Dementia! What’s dementia?
Boy 2: I think my granny’s going to get dementia because she keeps on calling Louie Charlie.
Girl 1: You can get heart problems and your blood pressure can get down and you never know when you’re going to die or not, because as you get older you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.
Professor Kirkwood: Life expectancy is increasing in the UK today at the rate of two years for every decade that passes – that’s five hours each day. It’s the biggest change confronting humanity in the 21st world, it’s much bigger than climate change. Make no mistake this is humanity’s greatest success. It’s not as some people would have us believe, an unfortunate experiment in human survival that has gone disastrously wrong; when you hear some people talk about the burden of all these old people around you, you’d feel that this was something we never wanted to happen. Well of course we wanted it to happen because people actually don’t like dying.
Dr Gems: The thing about ageing, you have two different sides of it – I mean you have the maturational side, you gain in maturity, you gain in wisdom, you change with age, and that’s something that I like very much. As I get older in a way I feel more comfortable with who I am and it seems in some ways I’m getting better. But the other side of ageing is the deteriorative side of ageing, which is really what we study in the lab, and I’m really frightened of that.
Professor Kirkwood: We’re probably more scared of death now than people were in previous generations because death is pretty rare in most of our experience, until it happens to a very old person.
Dr Gems: I think the concern that most people have when it comes to ageing is not so much a shortening of their life or even death, it’s disability; people aren’t afraid of dying, they’re afraid of having to have someone else take them to the toilet.
Carmen: I think as long as I’m still healthy and able to do things I’m okay I think, you know, yeah. Then when I get sick people have to look after me, you know, because then I’ll be a burden to them, yes, and I suppose I will start feeling miserable and then they will – it will be their job to look after me, a carer, but they’re maybe going to get fed up with me, yeah, you know, they’re human like me, we’re all humans, we are, yeah.
[Laughter, voices talking in the background]
Professor Partridge: As far as I can see, it takes an awful lot for somebody to want to die as oppose to be alive, and I don’t know whether that’s fear of death or whether it’s that there’s enough enjoyment left in life that they don’t want to lose that enjoyment. I suspect it’s the latter mainly. I think what most people are afraid of is suffering, not of dying.
Professor Kirkwood: Ageing is sort of a journey that is challenging, it’s exciting and ultimately it’s heartbreaking. You know, sort of when you are full of life and you enjoy the things that you do, the activities, you enjoy the relationships you have, then the devastating realisation strikes you every now and then that it’s got to come to an end is just truly awful.
Girl 2: I don’t want to live too long because it’s going to get really hard, yeah.
Teacher: What would be hard do you think?
Girl 2 [with voices in the background]: To walk and –
Boy 3: And to get around the place.
Boy 2: But you’d get a wheelchair.
Girl 1: Yeah an electrical wheelchair.
Girl 2: I think it just gets quite hard, even on my nan and granddad who are perfectly in shape.
Olive: I used to go swimming every day and I have medals and a teacher’s certificate. I used to go every day swimming but now I could go, get in the water, but I’m nervous when I come out onto that wet surface, and I miss that, I miss my swimming. But I like to see other people enjoying themselves, as long as they do sensible things.
Brian: You’re slow at certain things and all, say running or anything like that. I’m alright walking and all that, you know, but you know, I couldn’t do a hundred yard sprint or something.
Boy 4: I don’t think my granddad knew he was going to die, I think he was just about to eat and then just literally just – literally just faded away. But he didn’t like fade away into darkness like disappear.
Teacher: No, he just kind of –
Boy 4: Yeah his heart, it just sort of stopped.
Teacher: And do you think that’s a good way to go?
Boy 4: At least you don’t know it’s going to happen because it could happen any time.
Professor Tom Kirkwood: The reason we age and die is just that in our ancestral past when life was genuinely nasty, brutish and short and there were many things that would see us off, usually at quite an early age, it was always a much higher priority to grow and to reproduce than to build a body that could last for ever. And that tells us that ageing is not something that’s driven by a clock; ageing results from the gradual accumulation of the damage that affects our cells, tissues and organs as we live our lives.
What we know about it is probably only 1 per cent of what we need to know about it. This is massive.
Dr Gems: At the moment in the developed world the major underlying cause of most of the mortal illness and severe illness is ageing. Ageing causes cardiovascular disease, it causes heart attacks and strokes and so on, it causes dementias – Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease – cancer.
Professor Partridge: It slips over into being a disease in my view when the loss of function becomes so severe that it really leads to major loss in quality of life. But what’s equally clear is that the ageing process is a major risk factor for the development of ageing-related diseases, and that becomes particularly clear if you can make an animal live longer through mutation or making it eat less or whatever, because what you see is a broad spectrum, protection against ageing-related disease. So what that’s telling us is that if we can somehow ameliorate the impact of the ageing process then we’re also reducing the impact of ageing-related disease.
Dr Gems: It’s one of the great surprises of recent research on ageing is that it turns out that ageing is something quite plastic, it’s quite malleable, so in the organism that I work on, C. elegans, increases in lifespan of up to tenfold have been achieved, which would for a human being be equivalent to an increase in lifespan of more than a thousand years.
[Sounds of laboratory machines working]
The way it works is that if we can find a gene for example that controls ageing in the worm, we can then say, well do flies also have this gene, and if so does it also control ageing in flies? If so, then maybe this is a universal ageing gene and we can test it in the mouse and see whether it controls mammalian ageing.
[Workshop and classroom noises, laughter]
On the whole, most people are of the view that reducing levels of ageing-related disease is a fantastic thing. It’s a route potentially to relieving suffering on an absolutely colossal scale. Then you have this second consequence, which is extension of lifespan, increased longevity, and there people’s views differ enormously. You get people who are very opposed and very concerned about that, and people who are sort of in favour, and some people who are almost fanatically enthusiastic about the idea of life extension.
David: I was very young at the time, probably in my teens, but already I’d been thinking about ageing. Something in me had just triggered the thought that ageing was a very, very bad thing. I had this vision in my mind that as a child your function kind of increases, you get more and more capable over time, and then I realised that when ageing kicks in, that process goes into reverse and you get less and less function over time – it seemed to me a very bad prospect. And I was very interested in science as a child so I always kind of assumed that science would do something about ageing. But I also assumed that that would be hundreds, maybe even thousands of years into the future and it wouldn’t necessarily help me. When I saw this article which mentioned calorie restriction I thought, well, my god, there’s something that they can do about ageing and why aren’t people shouting this from the rooftops? So I immediately thought, well, rats in scientific terms are pretty similar to humans, so there’s a good chance that it’s kind of transferable to humans, and at some point that memory remained with me and I actually decided to actually put it into action myself, actually starting to cut down my own calories and see what would happen. What it means now is that I just have two meals: one meal of about 700 calories and one of about 1,000 calories. What it is is I don’t want to deteriorate and I would actually also prefer to not to have a fixed lifespan. So say at the moment you can say to an average guy, “Well you’re going to live to 75, probably, and you don’t have any choice about that.” So he’s basically been told he’s in this box, well you’re going to live from there to there. I would actually like the end point of my life to be indefinite.
I don’t see any – personally – see any reason why you wouldn’t want to go on for ever, but at this stage I mean how would I know? There may well be a reason I just don’t know what it is.
Barry (film maker): How old are you?
Teacher: So if you could live to any age, if you could live to any age, what would it be?
Boy 3: I know
Girl 1: Oh I would want to be a trillion years old.
Boy 2: That’s not even a number.
Girl 1: Because I want to be the oldest lady in the world.
Girl 1: Because I want to live for long.
Teacher: What do you think would happen if you lived to be a trillion years old?
Girl 1: It’d be amazing.
Brian: You don’t mean by – well, putting batteries in you and all that, you know what I mean? Or go round like a robot, you know what I mean? I think yeah, yeah, I don’t think science – well I don’t know – should interfere with your life.
Olive: I think if you live as long as you want, as long as you live a clean and good life and try to give others the advantage of what you’ve learned through your life.
Teacher: So if you could live to be any age you like, what would it be?
Boy 2: Infinity.
Teacher: Infinity, you would live for ever? Why would you like to live for ever?
Boy 2: Because you just know a lot of people and make lots of new friends because you could travel to lots of countries and everything and meet loads of new animals and everything.
Boy 1: It’d be good to have about – live up to 105, 110 or 100, because then you could help people and like tell them about history and everything like that, to help them learn.
[Workshop noises, music]
Barry (film maker): What would be your perfect age?
Jeane: Oh that’s a very hard one. I should imagine round about, say, 100, 125, something like that. I think – I don’t think it’s possible afterwards, I don’t know, because the world would be full of old people otherwise wouldn’t it? And I think you’ve got to give the younger people a chance. [Laughs]
Boy 3: Up to like – living up to 80 it starts to get really hard to live, so a trillion and infinity is a bit too much I think, so I’d say about 100 for me.
Beryl: What would be my perfect age? Well, two sides of my family, I’ve known people who lived to 102 with their intellect. Mind you, if I reach to be 100 like little Elizabeth here, I would be quite satisfied.
Girl 3: I’d sort of know when I wanted to die, I wouldn’t exactly know the second I was going to die, but I’d sort of know when I felt that I’d seen everything and I’m ready to die and once you’re ready to die your body seems to understand that.
Barry (film maker): Let’s say, what about 200 years?
Beryl: Oh good god no, that’s over the limit, asking a bit too much, oh yeah.
Carmen: I wouldn’t like to live very, very long. There’s a certain time it stops isn’t it, things stop, you know, there’s a certain time when you’ve got to stop, I don’t want to live for ever. When the time comes, especially if you’re not well, when God calls you then you go, you know.
[Sounds of children playing]
Professor Kirkwood: I find it very difficult to put a number to my preferred lifetime; it depends on how the journey goes. There are things that I would like to see happen; I’ve planted a lot of trees over the last ten years, I would love to see them grow up, I have children in their middle 20s, I don’t have grandchildren yet, there are scientific discoveries I’m really curious about. I will feel very cheated when the end finally comes because there will be things that I would love to know the answer to that I will not know the answer to.
Teacher: Say that you could live for ever. How would you fill all of that time you had, what would you do?
Boy 4: When I’m a bit young I would have – like ten – I would play, go to school. When I get older I’d have an education, go to college, university, get a job, and then when I finish my job I’ll probably just act normal really.
Girl 1: All that time I would spare in my whole life I’ll get to have more opportunities to do stuff and to go places like… Tanzania, I don’t know.
Boy 3: Yeah but you might be quite old.
Dr Gem: If it was clear that I had say a doubling of my life expectancy I would have to think in terms of radical changes. I mean I think at the moment I would guess that I’ll continue doing research for the next 15 years and then retire, then I’ll have a sort of period of retirement and I’ll stay with my wife until the end. But I think if I had another 100 years then I would be very seriously thinking about the length of my career and when I would make a complete change, maybe go back to university, retrain as something completely different. Whether my marriage would last for another 100 years I actually rather doubt, and for me I’m not sure that marriage would make sense over such a long period.
Professor Kirkwood: And who knows, I might fall in love at 108, with some amazing person and really want to live on to 200, you know. These are things that you cannot forecast.
Professor Partridge: I always think the terrible thing about having to die at some point, or one of the terrible things about having to die at some point, is that, you know, I’m so curious to see how it’s all going to work out, and of course I’m not going to at a certain point, I’m going to stop seeing how the world changes and what big events happen, what new discoveries are made, I’ll never know, and I think one of the nice things about living a bit longer is that one would just see a bit further into what actually happened, how the story unfolded.
David: I really would like to think that anybody I come into contact with in my life then I leave them better than I found them. That’s sort of one element to my philosophy. The other is to really to make your life different. If it’s the same as hundreds of lives that have gone before, to me that feels a bit pointless. I feel that you should have some kind of individualistic take on life and have a life which is different to others and really lived to the furthest extent possible.
Professor Kirkwood: I think that however long or short my life ends up being, I would like to be able to look back and feel that, you know, the time of my life was good. Learning to be content and at the same time aspiring, but aspiring to achieve more, to do more within the kind of framework we have, is ultimately what life is about and is ultimately the route to fulfilment and happiness.
Teacher: Let’s have a look, how big… look at the size of that! That’s a monster, isn’t it?
Children [in unison]: Wow.
Jeane: Well I suppose life itself, being alive, being able to talk to people, to do things, to go places, just enjoy what you’ve got.
Beryl: Usefulness, finding something to do, reading, gardening, sewing, mending.
Boy 3: The best thing about being alive is to see your family basically. Without your family it’s quite hard, if you don’t have any relatives and stuff, so I think it’s your family that’s most important when you’re alive.
Girl 1: For all those years, because I love the world, I love the world, I want to stay there as long as I can, because I love the world.
Professor Partridge: Well it’s often said that life’s what happens while you’re making other plans, isn’t it? I think I feel a bit like that about it myself, I think often the things I enjoy most are incidental things that come up, you know, going out for a walk on Sunday and suddenly seeing some wonderful countryside or natural history of some kind, a particularly good novel that I wasn’t expecting, families suddenly doing things that make them very happy. Of course anything to do with new arrivals in the family is always a wonderful thing. I think just lots of different things, not all of which are terribly easy to anticipate.
Girl 2: I sort of think like, sort of the world, because that’s how the world’s sort of made us and –
Boy 3: Yeah, we need to look after it.
Girl 2: Because that’s how we are here today.
Girl 1: Including the world I think the universe is, because the universe made the world and the world made us, so basically it’s the universe. What would we do without like stars and the moon and the sun? There would be no rainbows and it would just be a dark, dull world.
Olive: We were sent on this earth to live a life and you’ve got to make the most of it.
Barry (film maker): Why?
Olive: Well what’s the point of living a life if you’re not doing any good or getting interested in things? It’s no good having a long life if you’re just going to sit in a chair and watch things go by. You must get interested to keep your brain active.
Boy 4: It could be to like experience new things because if your – say you could be alive and you don’t take your chances, you’ll probably end up not knowing stuff, so some people they don’t eat food, but they don’t try it just because it doesn’t look nice. Sometimes things that don’t look nice are very nice and sometimes stuff that looks nice can be nice or not nice. So it depends on you trying out new things and seeing if you can do them or not really.
Boy 1: Well I think that maybe heaven isn’t there, maybe it’s just nothing there, so when you die you think you go to heaven but you don’t and you might just die and then you forget everything and you’re nothing.
[Workshop and laboratory noises]
Teacher: So what’s the most important thing about being alive then? Is it realising that?
Boy 1: Yeah.
[End of recording]
This article’s contributor is Barry J Gibb, whose odd career began as a molecular biologist and neuroscientist but he succumbed to creative urges and started freelancing as a hybrid film maker and writer. This article is republished from Mosaic under Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.