I’ve heard it said that you know you are getting old when you automatically begin to resent the young.
“Look at them with their carefree trousers and still-abundant hair. Who do they think they are? Dancing, going on dates… and I hear some of them enjoy laughing. Not the gothy ones obviously but some of the others. We didn’t have laughing in the ‘80s. We had to make do with Bananarama.”
Indeed it may be said that we punish the young for their potential – and their pain-free knees – by giving them high unemployment and Justin Bieber. We resent them their hooded knitwear and their easy A-Levels, we blame them for ruining our language with text speak; some of us even call them feral. If it’s any comfort to the current young – it was always like this. The older generation dislike the young, in truth it is less about who you are or what you do and more about the fact that you have much better skin than we do.
Of course the ageing process is something of an existential challenge. Are we the people we hoped to be? Have we managed to make sense of life and find meaning in it? Is it reasonable to still not know what you want to do when you grow up when you are, in fact, 43?
The process is, however, also wrapped in a gradual physical deterioration. As we get older, we get wrinkly. Yes we do. We lose the fat deposits under the skin that keep it smooth. We lose muscle tissue, our sight can deteriorate, we may even develop cataracts. Also some of us are drawn towards wearing beige leisurewear and hogging the middle lane of the motorway.
Well perhaps medicine is about to help bridge the gap between old and not so old. Scientists in the US have discovered a way of “flushing out” retired cells in mice and in so doing have delayed the onset of wrinkles, cataracts and muscle wasting, hinting at the possibility of healthier older age. Interestingly, in a month when the planet welcomed its 7 billionth person, the potential treatment has no effect on lifespan – although, perhaps ever mindful of the need for extra research funding, one scientist said that may be due to the type of genetically engineered mice being used in the experiment.
In recent years selling the illusion of youth has become a multibillion-pound industry – Botox, facelifts, the scary sounding “chemical peel”. As despairing as the mercury-based paint that passed for Elizabethan make-up, these “treatments” remind us of our cultural preoccupation with looking young, regardless of how it makes us feel. But the idea of actually changing the effects of ageing – enabling us to move around more easily, to see more comfortably, to feel less pain in our joints and back – might render the cosmetic brutalism all but redundant.
Perhaps the problem if, like me, you are over 40, is how we might greet this exciting and potentially life-enhancing news. Will we thrill to the possibility of pain-free retirement years? Smile at the reduced need for glasses and moisturiser? Look forward to endless dancing? I doubt it. I suspect it is more likely we will experience the breakthrough as another opportunity to extend our retirement age to around 78, bemoan the boffins for messing with nature, and defend the right of a well-lived life to collect some interesting lines around the eyes. Why? Because no matter how much you treat old age, it is still, at heart, the result of accumulated life. And sometimes, regardless of reason, we can be a curmudgeonly bunch can’t we?
Mark Radcliffe is a senior lecturer and author of Gabriel’s Angel.