We live in a society obsessed with youth, a world where youth is synonymous with both beauty and success. Models and TV personalities are airbrushed to avoid any trace of wrinkles. Mature female personalities are ousted for superstars with perkier breasts. This desperate quest for youth drove Americans to spend a staggering $12.9 billion on cosmetic procedures in 2014, a figure from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons that’s less than surprising in our age obsessed world.
People are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for anti-aging facial creams and for many, facial injections to get back that firm and youthful appearance are perceived as a necessity. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, procedures involving Botox, short for botulinum toxin, were performed 6.7 million times within the USA in 2014 alone. We’ll do anything – saggy breasts are so unsightly that we’ll even cut ourselves open and pump them full of silicone gel. Yet, while the money we fritter on looking young seems to be forever on the increase, the quest for eternal youth is one on which we’ve embarked repeatedly throughout human history.
Death and the never-ending struggle against it
There are as many myths and legends about eternal youth as there are brands of bogus anti-aging cream. As far back as the fifth century BC, mankind has told elaborate stories about the fountain of youth, a mythical spring that brings youth to those who drink from or bathe in it. When the Greek historian Herodotus attributed the longevity of the Macrobians, an ancient Libyan tribe, to their magical water fountain, he couldn’t possibly have comprehended that millennia into the future the legend would be featured in the fourth installment of Pirates of the Caribbean.
And who could forget the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life, an obsession of alchemists for centuries, kept alive through popular fiction, such as in the Harry Potter books? Since the Middle Ages, the Philosopher’s Stone and the quest for youth have motivated alchemists to experimentally mix all sorts of ingredients. The search for youth was the primitive precursor to the modern science of chemistry. And what’s honestly changed? Fast-forward to today and the compulsive search for youth is still continuing within scientific laboratories across the globe.
Can science cure aging?
Modern science is rapidly advancing our understanding of aging, including surprising links between aging and our brains. Researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York have uncovered links between aging and inflammation in the hypothalamus, the tiny but important part of our brain responsible for production of hormones that help govern hunger, thirst and body temperature. Altering how signals work within the hypothalamus can theoretically slow down the aging process, and has already been shown to increase longevity in mice by about 20 percent. It’s promising, and only represents a small fraction of the frenzied global effort to understand, and ultimately conquer, aging.
Immense sums of money are thrown into our modern quest for eternal youth, with large global corporations and billionaires keen to play a role. Physician and investor Joon Yun is playing his part by sponsoring The Palo Alto Longevity Prize. Launched in 2014, it encourages scientists to hack the code that controls our lifespan, offering one million dollars in prize money to the team that extends the lifespan of a mouse by 50 percent. And he’s not alone. In 2013, multinational giant Google founded their biotech company, Calico (California Life Company), with the ambitious aim of curing death and other age-related diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s. Along with AbbVie they may co-invest up to $1.5 billion to the cause. But all this money doesn’t do much to comfort somebody standing grey-haired in front of a mirror now. Luckily, there may be a way around that – for a price, of course.
Fork out $80,000, and we’ll freeze your brain.
Cryopreservation, the process of freezing the brain or body in liquid nitrogen, is no longer confined to the realms of science fiction. Despite no guarantee of success, people are willing to freeze themselves, for the mere possibility of future revival. The gruesome process involves draining the blood and bodily fluids then pumping the body full of an antifreeze-like liquid that prevents the formation of damaging ice crystals. Alcor, one of the biggest cryopreservation companies in the world, now offers memberships and death plans. The cost, however, is immense; $80,000 to preserve the brain, or $200,000 for the whole body, and that’s excluding yearly membership fees. But that hasn’t deterred the 138 people Alcor has already frozen. Will the costs for them ultimately be worth it, or are we merely indulging in an expensive burial ritual, the modern day equivalent of mummification? Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing for sure until the future.
Humanity’s been obsessed with immortality and youth throughout its entire history. But, while modern science is determined to fight aging – and is progressing – true eternal youth is far beyond its current capabilities. Instead, we fake it until we make it, developing and shamelessly consuming cosmetic products and procedures that give the illusion of youth. But do we ever stop and wonder if it truly makes us happy? Sure, obsessing over youth can make you look pretty, but in truth, the preoccupation with youth can become an ugly obsession.