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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 91 - Welcome to the hang-gliding new centenarians

I ONCE saw a cartoon showing a young woman of the chorus girl persuasion, with more curves than a scenic railway, her face suffused with smiles, and sipping champagne while sitting on the knee of a glum-looking, portly, old gent in a night-club. "Nonsense, darling," she says, "85 isnít old."

By the beaded bubbles blinking at her glassís brim and her high-kicking heels, her reassurance is, nowadays, too true. In biblical terms, the old boy was a stripling. Moses, who had lived an almost filmic early life in a series of rushes and failed to get the promised milk and honey franchise, knocked up 120 years before his eyes dimmed and his natural force abated. Noah, buoyed up with a variety of liquid assets, lasted for 950 years, while Methuselah, apart, probably, from a bit of mildew round the edges and cobwebs in the armpits, reached a never-beaten 969 years before disappearing into the dustbin of Middle Eastern history.

Compared with the last two long-lifers, we modern humans havenít a look-in. The greatest, fully-authenticated age reached by anyone in the world is the 122 years, 164 days of a Frenchwoman, Jeanne Louise Calment (1875-1997), a formidable breaking of what was regarded as mankindís natural span - the "good innings" of three score years and ten.

Now, people are living longer, and growing numbers in their sixties and even older, while not swinging from chandeliers or sliding down banisters, are engaging in white-water rafting, massed formation parachute-jumping, hang-gliding, Japanese-style mud-wrestling and Thai kick-boxing.

ALL these are activities once regarded as suitable for the madcap young and now open to vigorous, sometimes liposuctioned veterans, even those with replaced joints, liver and heart transplants who carry ephedrine inhalers, emergency wig sticky-tape, haemorrhoidal rubber rings and an rattling armoury of pill-boxes.

All very commendable - I look forward to the construction of motorised Zimmer race tracks - although all that hyperactivity may be natureís way of getting rid of persistently-energetic wrinklies who, like tropical flies, refuse to be discouraged.

To become a centenarian and get royal back-slaps is regarded by society as a magnificent feat of clinging to lifeís cliff-edge, thus avoiding the shifting sands at the bottom.

That achievement, in the developed world, may, one day, be regarded as having only reached middle age according to predictions that, by the centuryís end, people could be living for 200 years.

According to the Journal of Anti-Aging Medicine, out of 60 experts on aging, asked to predict life expectancy for a baby born in 2100, over half believed it would be above 100 years. Seven who were interviewed for the journalís research project, believed it could be between 150 and 200 years; the great longevity leap fuelled by advances in genetic engineering to counteract the effects of aging and the defeat or control of mass infectious diseases.

WHILE I am so old I remember Heinz having only one variety, am of the generation that puts £5 in the church collection plate as an investment rather than a contribution and whose massed birthday cake candles constitute a fire hazard, I would not want to live to an over-ripe old 100, let alone a further century, unless I was in a mental and physical state to eat a soft-boiled egg without help.

Undoubtedly, there will significant advances in organ and other body parts replacement techniques. The great terminal diseases will surely be conquered and, as a lesser but welcome achievement, new teeth may be grown from stem cells implanted into gums to give people flashing smiles to face the, perhaps, years-weary world.

When it comes to the crunch, will people rejoice to know that, when they have reached 100 after about 80 working years, they may have around another 50 or more years before retirement?

Leaving aside possible planetary overcrowding by death-defying oldies, what will people look like aged 200? Will they resemble Gagool, the age-shrunken witch-finder in Rider Haggardís novel, King Solomonís Mines, whose face suggested a malevolent prune, or look like a relief map of the Apennines? While many people will struggle to feel comfy with new organs, others will be on hospital waiting-lists for face-lifts or transplants.

"Nonsense dear, " says the 65-year-old curvaceous lass, "195 isnít old." A longer life? Do me no favours; it sounds like a life sentence.

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