Is old age unavoidable, or should we fight it?
If we were to choose to fight old age what is the enemy? Would we be trying to postpone death or to keep our wits and be free of aches and pains?

 . . . and one more thing – Since Jan 2024 I have started putting my essays on Substack and with audio too! Please follow me there and give it likes and shares. Pretty please all that good stuff.


Roger Daltrey is 80 this year and significantly, he’s still alive. Significantly because it’s almost sixty years since he sang ‘I hope I die before I get old’ and only two years since he said ‘I still do.’ In case you are too young to remember the Who, do yourself a favour and discover them soon.

When I put together the equality and diversity statement for my own website I thought long and hard about all the classifications where I should deny prejudice. I came up with nine and the first (I listed them alphabetically) is age.  Thankfully, this is something (unlike skin colour or gender for example) where we can still say whatever we think without risk of being cancelled. So I should be able to put my thoughts on that one down here without fear of losing friends.

When I was in my early fifties, I realised that I felt more happy and content than I had ever been before. Now in my late sixties I still feel that way, actually more mentally alive than I have ever been, less limited by my own doubts and beliefs, and more sure of my own position. Freer – I like the word ‘fulfilled.’ Of course my eyes and my ears and my lungs and my prostate gland and my muscles and my joints aren’t what they once were, and they all keep reminding me of my mortality. But on the other hand, my creative output in the past ten years has by far exceeded the total of that from the first five and a half decades of my life. 

And yet, if you were to ask me if I want to live another thirty years, that would be a definite no. Ask me if I think the world would be better run by youngsters or oldies. Again – I have no hesitation at all in saying by the young.

Is that an anomaly? How does it follow? Well for a start from a personal point of view there is that body-wearing-out aches-and-pains thing. This means that one day I won’t be able to focus so well on whatever is coming out of my mind. But there is more to it. As an aside, I think most people are much more creative when they are younger. But it’s much more than that. I believe progress of culture should trump the contentment of individuals and I’m happy to put my life on that line.

So as a self-admitted fan of youth, I had to have a self-critical giggle when I compared two recent episodes of the 80,000 Hours podcast. 

Here’s my personal evaluation: 

  • 75 year old Randy Nesse  – rich deep wisdom
  • 29 year old Laura Deming  – thin emotive fluff

This is significant because coincidentally in both cases, the discussion was about ageing and whether we should think about stopping it. 

The interview with Laura Deming was a real disappointment for me both in style and content. Despite being an expert in the subject, she refused to answer several significant questions about ageing. And insisted on focussing instead on why she personally has been passionate about this for the past seventeen years. To save you the arithmetic, that means she started out on this journey when she was just twelve years old. 

I found her narrative so obscure that I couldn’t resist checking the transcript to see whether it had been compressed and edited, but there are all her ramblings reproduced verbatim just as large as life. I have copy pasted in this footnote over five hundred words from the transcript. And in those five hundred words she says nothing more or less than research into extending lifespan has progressed in the last 50 years, and then evades answering the question of what ageing actually is.

But as a real believer in evolution, I gladly admit  that nothing succeeds like success. After all, this woman is not a scientist, she is a venture capitalist who’s enthusiasm has raised $tens of millions for scientific research in just a dozen years. I guess she is sparkling proof of Khalil Gibran’s thesis about the significance of the ‘meaningless half’ that I discussed a couple of weeks back. 

Deming admits her own horror of the idea of death and incapacity of old age and her life is dedicated to fighting that monster and even to denying any suggestion that ageing is a natural course. Meanwhile conversely the recent 80,000 hours interview with Randy Nesse mentioned ageing as a tiny sidetrack just before the close and concludes the exact opposite. 

Nesse was asked why we age, and I loved his eloquence. He explained that as an undergraduate he had proposed that ‘it would be good for the species if natural selection made some individuals die each year so that the population could turn over and the species could evolve faster and adapt to changing environments.’

Yes I thought, ‘that’s exactly what I think’ in a delicious moment of pride before the fall. 

Nesse then immediately u-turned by reminding us that evolution doesn’t actually favour good philosophical ideas unless they manifest themselves as a mechanism for the propagation of genes. That good for the species for the oldies to get out of the way thing just didn’t have such a mechanism. He realised instead that our organism takes what I would call ‘a budget of total good health in a lifetime’ (and he calls antagonistic pleiotropy) and skews the delivery of that budget to maximise our physical powers at the moment when we are ready to reproduce, leaving us to suffer the consequences of the tail-end after we have passed on our genes. Yup that’s evolution for you. 

Nesse concludes ‘ageing isn’t a disease, it’s not something you can fight, it’s something that you might as well be appreciative of, that natural selection has given us all so much extra vigour early in life’

Now I love that. Not only can this guy talk in sentences that transfer information, but he also speaks with the good sense embodied in the Serenity Prayer – that’s the one about having the strength to change what you can, the serenity to accept what you can’t and the wisdom to know the difference.

Having said that, I am feeling guilty about my negativity on the Deming episode so I want to pick up a couple of the more interesting philosophical threads from that discussion before I consider what ageing actually is.

If we did all live forever would it make us nicer people? Apparently there is a part of game theory that reveals that games that go on forever encourage mutual support and collaboration whereas those that don’t, don’t. Well yes that makes sense. But I don’t think it’s enough – firstly Deming specifically wasn’t talking about living forever, just deferring the moment by a decade or ten. Secondly, the extension of old age just isn’t enough to turn our aggressive cultures for the better unless we also take out our competitive youth – and that raises all sorts of other questions about demographics and possibly eugenics. Let’s not go there.

Another question was wondering if we live forever, would that rob us of meaning in our lives by taking the urgency out of our YOLO? Now on that, my knee jerk reaction is to sympathise, but only to a limited extent. I have never needed the idea that You Only Live Once to inspire me. I find interest in what is before me to give meaning to my day to day existence. If nothing is pushed at me by my environment. I’m quite capable of playing with a piece of paper, taking the dog for a walk or listening to a podcast. 

There is lots of research to show that we are happiest when finding meaning in the present, and that contentment is derived from making continuous achievable progress rather than meeting targets. Nesse talks about this stuff elsewhere in the same episode. Now I do see my own life overall as a trajectory, but to have the lid taken off. Would that spoil it or improve it? Actually neither, not really. I only see my life that way in retrospect. It doesn’t inform my enjoyment of today.

I was really surprised that the Deming interview didn’t mention demographic economics. It was explained to me when I was about 30 by a pension salesman that I should really be worried about this. He explained that public pensions don’t work by investment in funds for the future, as I might have intuitively expected. They work from year to year. I’m talking about the UK here, but I guess it must work this way anywhere that has national pensions. This year’s National Insurance contributions from those in work pay this year’s pensions for those who are retired. He showed me a demographic graph with the baby boom bulge and me right in the middle of its fat belly.  When I got old there were going to be too many of me and not enough of the next generation in work to support us. So I should really invest in his pension plan. I didn’t, and I seem to be surviving, but I did find his argument compelling and I have observed that the retirement age did creep up by a couple of years before I caught up with it. 

So if we live to 75 and spend 50 years working (18-68) then in simple arithmetic proportion if we live to 200 we should work until we are 115. Now I enjoyed work but I enjoy retirement a lot more. If Deming’s life’s work resulted in my retirement being deferred from 68 to 115, I have a feeling that I wouldn’t be rushing up to shake her hand in gratitude.  

But now let’s talk about ageing itself. Did you read, as I did once, that our cells are renewed on average every seven years? If a new cell is created to replace an old one, then why is the new cell born old? Why doesn’t our body just renew? Mature people produce infant babies, Lizards produce new tails, so why don’t we all make young skin, toned abs and hair follicles that grow hair?

So I read a bit about this and didn’t get very far with my first enquiry. The antagonistic pleiotropy thing suggests that it’s the same genes that keep us fit when we need to be, that make us crinkly when their work is done. I don’t know why that is. I’ll just put that down to Mother Nature’s excellent ability not to care very much about what I think. 

Another way of looking at it is that non-life is much much more common than life. The total biomass on Earth is 150 Gigatonnes of Carbon (over 80% of which by the way is trees and toadstools) Multiply by 2 because of the half of us that isn’t carbon, and 300 Gigatonnes is 3 x 10^14kg. The mass of the Earth itself is 6 x 10^24kg, so for every ton of life, there are twenty thousand million tons of non-life.  That’s not counting the mass of the rest of the solar system which is much much much bigger, and where life is famously even less common than it is on Earth

(The audio version of that paragraph is slightly different, recorded before I realised that I had made a mistake on the mass of fungi, and that you have to multiply Carbon biomass by 2 to get the total – neither of these errors affect the argument I am making . . . )

The point I’m making is that life is really really rare. And why is that? Because it costs a lot to keep life on a macro scale running counter to the second law of thermodynamics. Mother nature stopped going out of her way to support me last time I passed on a viable gamete. Like it or not, I’m in Randy Nesse’s company here. And I’m happy to state that I am very comfortable with the situation.

But I’m still interested in the mechanism. I think the best way of looking at it is a mixture of damage and tattoos.

Yes, a new cell replaces an old one on average every seven years in my body. Some more slowly. And interestingly some of the slowest are heart and brain cells which perhaps says something about the continuity of life. Surprisingly then perhaps every cell in my skeleton is renewed more often; as often as every ten years. Skin cells are replaced faster than that. 

So why do I still have the tattoo I got a quarter of a century ago?  Here’s what happens there. The artist squirted a foreign substance into my skin. Now the skin is three layers deep. The outer layer wears off pretty soon, the bottom inner layer gets flushed through regularly with blood and other body fluids and so the tattoo is only left in the middle layer. My immune system in the form of macrophages immediately got to work in that middle layer to attack the tattooist’s ink. They swallowed the ink particles, isolating them in little quarantine bags called vacuoles. But ink is an inert chemical. My defence system couldn’t destroy it, and so the ink just remained encapsulated inside these vacuoles. Now those macrophages don’t live forever, and when they died, they disintegrated leaving the ink particles behind, again to be recognised as a potential threat, and swallowed up again by the new incoming macrophages. So far as I was concerned, my skin renewed and my tattoo stayed. 

So I guess that’s the way it works. My skin gets a bit damaged, dried out, tattooed, tanned, whatever, and cell by cell it dies. The new replacement cell doesn’t come in and say ‘hmm let’s spend a load of energy recreating what this one was like seven years ago.’ It just fits in with the local culture. Why wouldn’t it? 

So that’s as good as you’ll get from me on the mechanism. 

What about the mechanism of human culture? Roger Daltrey’s song was called My Generation. It was my generation too and we (not me obviously – I was too busy being sensible) moved the planet forward while simultaneously messing it up. That was done by reacting against the generation before. As revolutions go, ours was a gentle one and a positive one. And now it’s high time for a new generation to react against us, while building on the progress we made and clearing up the mess we left behind. 

Mother Nature doesn’t care about us, but Greta Thunberg cares about Mother Nature and I’ll drink to that.

Nick James      Posted in:



March 2024, Brittany France

Header Image:

The Who 1965 – Getty Images