Seeking the tree of life

When the serpent in the Garden of Eden tempted Adam and Eve, he told them the “tree of life” in the center of the garden had the secret to eternal life. Eating it would make them live forever. They fell for it and ironically, ever since, humans have been looking for the magic apple that will allow them to live forever.

Greek and Roman mythology are full of stories of waters that fix everything. Myths pointed to pools in Ethiopia which cured all illnesses. Bathing in the water made humans strong and allowed them to live extra long lives.

American history maintains that explorer Ponce de Leon sailed from Puerto Rico to Florida in search of the Fountain of Youth. He didn’t find it.  Snake oil salespersons have found a lucrative market for centuries by promising that their particular elixir will make the customer live longer.

I have to admit, even if I live another 100 years, I will still not be ready to leave. I have far too many partially completed projects, places to visit, and things to learn.

Our search for an extended life is all around us. Advocates of caloric restriction eat tiny amounts of vegetables, protein and carbohydrates in hopes of living a long life. There is some scientific evidence that mice fed 30-40 percent less than a normal mouse diet tend to live 30-40 percent longer. Apparently, however, feeding mice a starvation diet keeps them from reproducing. I couldn’t find reproductive data on humans on a caloric reduction diet.

Scientists, looking for a new fountain of youth, have discovered that being hungry most of the time stimulates certain chemicals in the body which seem to ward off the degenerative diseases of aging.  The chemical “resveratrol” found in grapes and red wines is one of those chemicals. One of the scientists who has led this research recently sold his research company to GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical giant, for $720 million.

ABC News once featured a village in Japan where people live to be 80, 90 and even 100 with little disease, dementia or wrinkles. The villagers and their doctor (who is still practicing medicine at 84) attribute their long, healthy lives to their diet: potatoes, vegetables and a little meat. They are also active and busy. Maybe there’s a magic diet: oats, olive oil, no oil, meat, no meat, no fat, soy, raw food, no coffee, dark chocolate, no sugar…

Television commercials hawk creams and potions that will take away wrinkles, plump your lips and dissolve cellulite. Actors playing doctors pitch drugs that can cure the effects of aging on your worn out joints, your bladder control and your sex life. Market researchers estimate that Americans spend $70 billion a year on anti-aging products and services.

What if one of these days, some researcher does it? What if one of these many studies finally finds the secret and develops a pill that can keep us young for 100 or 200 years? How would that pill change the world?

Would we keep working for another 50 or 60 years? If we were healthy and didn’t need health insurance, we could probably retire and just sit on the beach somewhere for another half-century. Of course, the amount of money one would need for such an extended retirement would require that we keep working longer.

How would our extended life effect the world’s population? The drug, because it would be so desirable and produced by pharmaceutical companies which know how to maintain corporate profits, would be expensive. The world’s poor will probably still die young. Since the each of us in the First World use a greater portion of the earth’s resources than our poor, Third World, neighbor, water, fuel, minerals would become scarce even more quickly. The population of the rich countries of the world might become increasingly older. Since we wouldn’t age, we might offset our aging by having more children.

At what point would we decide we had been on this earth long enough? Who would decide when our prescription for the longevity pill would no longer be refilled?

Rather than opening the gates to the fountain of youth, successful research into extending our life span could be opening the mythological Pandora’s box. Perhaps we should instead spend the money on reducing hunger, poverty, HIV/Aids, malaria, infant mortality and water born illnesses.

For someone living in the poorest parts of the world, a long life might be anything over the age of 55.

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains