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The art of prolongevity

The dream of perpetual life and eternal youth is not new. Notions of how to achieve it are roughly the same today as they were 300 years ago. But technological change has stretched the boundaries somewhat.

To remain young, or at least to look young, is an ideal that is growing stronger and stronger. Aging and death must be combated; staying young and living a long life are important. You have to work out and maintain your health.

This may seem to be a modern ideal, but it isn't really. Humankind's struggle to extend longevity, and the dream of perpetual youth, is rooted far back in history. Notions of how to achieve the dream have also been surprisingly similar throughout the ages.

"The foundations of the practical advice are the similar from the 18th century to our day. It's a matter of healthy or even ascetic diet, natural life, sleeping well, exercising, simple country life, and hygiene," says Janicke Andersson, who is defending her doctoral thesis at NISAL, Linköping University, in Sweden. She has studied historical handbooks on how to prolong life and compared them with contemporary debate and advice books.

In the 18th century, the idea was that humans had an optimal age, all the way up to 250 years (which was supposed to be the age of the patriarchs), but that we had degenerated and thus lived considerably shorter lives. If so, it should be possible to reach our optimal age by living properly.

Today there is no upper limit to for the notions on the extension of life. Institutions like the Immortality Institute and Life Extension Institute and associations like the Transhumanists strive for longer, or even eternal, life on earth. With transplant surgery we are able to replace worn-out body parts; hormone injections and pills are used to prevent the aging process; and dead people are frozen down in the hope of being thawed out again when it has become technologically possible to revive them.

Maintaining ones health and striving for a long life have become moral issues. The message is that with the right lifestyle it is possible to prevent aging and retain a youthful appearance. Being decrepit is thus a sign of moral turpitude. The life cycle itself has become a personal project that is all about self-control and self-discipline.

It's not simply a matter of living a long life but also of living actively. Successful Aging and Active Aging are movements of our time.

"How you age is something you yourself decide. It's up to you­ it depends how you deal with the situation," is advice from a modern handbook.

Previously religion was used to underpin this message. Only a good Christian could achieve a long life. Today, health movements have taken over this old rhetoric frame works. The popular stone-age diets, for instance, are based on the notion that we have lost our state of paradise, the Garden of Eden, which we can find our way back to.

"We want to attain eternal life, but we want to do it all here on earth and make up the rules of the game ourselves," writes Janicke Andersson.

The dissertation is titled The Art of Living a Long Life (in Swedish). Janicke Andersson can be reached at phone: +46 11-36 34 02 or +46 13-77 197; cell phone: +46 708-41 46 53; e-mail:

Anika Agebjörn | idw
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