People have always wanted to extend their lives, assuming, of course, that they could stop the clock at mid-life, thereby avoiding the indignities of old age. Longevity, they reason, should not be wasted on the young or the decrepit.
Earliest efforts at rejuvenation were basic. Noticing that people with blood were more lively than those without, our hunter-gathering forebears drank the blood of their young although they were usually civilized enough to wait until they were dead. During intermission at the Roman Coliseum, dead gladiator blood was a big favorite.
Breast milk was once also believed to the elixir of life. One can almost hear early man thinking, “Babies drink breast milk and see how young they are?” In the 15th century an Italian doctor advised that those seeking longevity should “find a young, healthy, gay and beautiful girl and attach his mouth to her breast when the moon is becoming full and eat fennel with sugar.” Breast milk didn’t work, although some people did report a mild placebo effect.
What many of the earliest longevity theories had in common is the notion that life is stored inside you and you should do everything in your power to keep it from coming out. People couldn’t help noticing that dead people didn’t breathe. Why not, they figured, make life last longer by periodic episodes of breath-holding alternating with shallow breathing? Others tried inhaling the expirations of fifteen sleeping virgins, thus harnessing the invigorating powers of youth, purity and breath. A more modest variation on the virgin theme called for sleeping between two virgins.
Holding back sperm instead of breath was another way men had of containing their vital spirit. Taoist males, for example, had sex without climaxing as many times a day as possible. Taoist women, however, were encouraged to have as many climaxes as possible on the theory that their vital powers flowed into the man’s brain at the time of orgasm. (This was one of the few instances when, at least from the point of view of good sex, it was a woman’s world.)
In the Middle Ages people sought longer living through alchemy. In addition to being able to turn lead into gold, the philosopher’s stone was reputed to turn old into young. Mixing their drinks with their metaphors, people actually swallowed tincture of gold in the hope that it would keep them from aging. It didn’t.
The Renaissance brought enlightenment to the quest for extended life spans, thanks primarily to Leonardo da Vinci who, while dissecting a cadaver, discovered arteriosclerosis. As usual, da Vinci was ahead of his time and nobody listened to him, thus delaying the debut of cholesterol by 400 years. Instead, science was supplanted by the notion that you’re only as old as you eat. For a while, people binged on egg yolks, spring lamb and suckling pig. The low point in the pursuit for longer living, the high colonic, didn’t work either.
Sex, well known to impart a certain friskiness, has often been linked to longevity, sometime painfully. In the late 19th century a French physician injected himself with extracts of testicles from dogs and guinea pigs. “It is sufficient to state,” said the delicate Monsier le Docteur, “that everything I had not been able to do for several years on account of my advanced age I am today able to perform most admirably.” He may have been referring to the fact that he became especially adept at chasing his tail and running on a wheel.
It wasn’t until the late 20th and early 21st century that efforts to increase longevity began to pay off, at least for fruit flies. By altering their genes, scientists could double their two-week life span, the equivalent of 154 human years and 22 dog years. The research is promising, but unlikely to translate into increased human longevity for this generation, whose average life expectancy is 78. Until scientists make the gigantic leap between fruit flies and people, humankind will have to rely upon a scattershot approach to increasing longevity — DNA, IRAs, free radicals, anti-oxidants, cryogenics, cosmetic surgery, looking both ways before crossing the street, angioplasty, hormone injections, exercise, meditation, starving, organ transplants, senior discounts, hip and knee replacements, and sleeping upside down in a freezer.