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Why do we have to get Old?

Updated on June 26, 2013
The map of life on a womans face
The map of life on a womans face

Humans, as far as we know, are the only species conscious of our own mortality. Thus we are apt to obsess not only over our inevitable death but also over the slow road of exponential wrinkly decreptitude that leads us there.

Few of us embrace the process of aging and all the ugly realities it entails. Many of us fight against it, worry about it, get depressed over it and some go to extraordinary lengths to escape it. Futilely of course, for the aging process cannot be evaded and no amount of kicking and screaming will fend of Time and its effects. We are genetically programmed to get old. PerhapsĀ  we'll figure out how to slow down the clock..but for now, it's the natural way of things.

The Fountain of Youth

In less sceptical times, the alluring legend of the Fountain of Youth spanned the globe, enduring for thousands of years. It was a mythical spring where the wrinkled and liver-spotted had merely to sip of its waters to return to beautiful youth. Probably we believed it because we so desperately wanted to...and if science hadn't turned out to be such a spoilsport in these matters, we'd probably be believing it still.

Indeed, there are some who still have faith in the existence of a fountain of youth but these modern believers generally seek out the elixer of youth at the cosmetic counter or the plush surgeries of plastic surgeons. As most of us know, the beauty industry is a multi-billion dollar dream-machine selling hope and illusion and the promise of a more youthful us to hoards of people hoping to wind back time.

The Fountain of Youth by, Lucas Cranach the Elder. 1546
The Fountain of Youth by, Lucas Cranach the Elder. 1546
Blanche has trouble confronting herself in the mirror.  Still shot from the 1951 Elia Kazan film starring Vivian Leigh
Blanche has trouble confronting herself in the mirror. Still shot from the 1951 Elia Kazan film starring Vivian Leigh

Blanche Dubois Syndrome

The beautiful but rapidly aging Blanche Dubois is a character in a Tennessee Williams play; A Streetcar Named Desire and it is a tale of a penniless, faded Southern Belle whose sense of identity is anchored in her feminine allure, which she shrouds in ladylike niceties. Blanche, living in a world of illusion, cannot accept the loss of her youth and beauty and yet..she must! There is a sad, compelling scene in the play, loaded with pathos, where she is dragged beneath a bright, direct light by her suitor Mitch and is thus forced to confront reality. She can't take the light.

Mitch tells Blanche that he doesn't mind her aging but it's her deceitfulfulness he can't take - the problem is internal, not external. Such is the fate of women who rely on the vanities of superficial beauty - it's called putting all your eggs in one basket and when the eggs are gone, there's an empty basket. In truth, Blanche is really a more complex character than I give her credit for here, but her story is a universal one in as much as many women, who once were beautiful find it hard to cope with the destructive nature of aging and what it does to the human body.

For many women, age brings insecurity and it's a little too late to develop a great personality at fifty if you haven't already formed one. I once heard beauty described as like owning a special passport that lets you travel to wonderful, exotic places but if you lose it, you suddenly can't get in anymore. Must be hard. Yet, trying desperately to retrieve that which is gone can have even more tragic results.

Jocelyn Wildenstein. Image from  Mail Online
Jocelyn Wildenstein. Image from Mail Online
The horrendous effects of cooking oil injections on a womans face. Image from The Telegraph.
The horrendous effects of cooking oil injections on a womans face. Image from The Telegraph.
It's ok to age
It's ok to age

The Tragedy of Trying too Hard

Of course Jocelyn Wildenstein, pictured at right and famous chiefly for making such a disaster out of her own face, is an extreme case of age-denial and quite possibly suffers from some sort of pathological condition. What else could explain such a mystifying form of self-destruction...? Poor Jocelyn, while perhaps eerily wrinkle free, has had so many surgeries and treatments that her original features are scarcely recognizable.

Scarily, Jocelyn is not an isolated case. There are many women who have ruined themselves in the pursuit of youth and beauty, however few cases are as tragic as that of Korean woman Hang Mioku, who triggered major damage to her facial features after injecting herself with cooking oil. Mioku was already anxious about aging at the dewy age of 28 and had her first surgery at that time.

Over the years several more operations followed until eventually surgeons refused to operate on her. Unfortunately, one doctor, who had given Hang silicone injections, supplied her with a syringe and silicone so she could inject herself at home. So obsessed with youth and beauty was Hang, when the silicone ran out and no more could be obtained, she began injecting her face with cooking oil. Surgery to correct some of the damage entailed removing 260g of foreign substance from her face and neck.

Though few youth worshippers are as extreme or as tragic as Hang, there are nonetheless hoards of women who spend small fortunes on fillers, plumpers. peels, laser treatments and a plethora of other cosmetic promises - some potentailly dangerous and all designed to stave off the spectre of aging. For a while, some of them do, as not all cosmetic enhancements end in disaster of course - but as far as beating Time goes, it will eventually roll around to everyone, no matter how rich or how beautiful. Botox can't hold us up forever and while I may be just making a value judgement here, tthere seems to be a point where some women, after looking great for years, appear to have just one injection/operation too many and start looking a little more alien sponge material than human. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with wanting to appear younger, although if beauty can be said to come from within, it''s my guess, (at least in theory) that diet, exercise and some kind of internal contentment are far superior ways to hang onto whatever youthful vitality we can.

A young progeria sufferer
A young progeria sufferer

The Aging Process: Why do we get Old?

Although aging is universal, we do age at different rates depending on such factors as genes, lifestyle, stress, disease, environmental damage etc. There have been various theories about what causes aging, such as harmful free radicals and the interesting idea that our cells work something like photocopiers and every time they reproduce themselves, the copy becomes a little less perfect.

It seems aging is caused by damage to our DNA, which may occur over time due to general wear and tear. How we respond to the damage is determined by particular genes, thus the reason why some people age more quickly than others. Children born with the rare, premature-aging disease, progeria, have been found to suffer a severe mutation in the XPF gene, which is involved in DNA repair. To confirm the effects of the mutation, in 2006 scientists in the laboratory manipulated mice genetically to create the rapid aging effect of the XPF mutation seen in progeria sufferers. However, the XFP gene, although very significant in repairing DNA damage, is not the only gene implicated in the aging process.

Will we ever be able to stop the aging process?

We're certainly working on it. The good news is, since 2006 scientists have been able to identify age-related genes and recent research into aging has been buoyed by the discovery of single-gene mutations that extend the lifespan of laboratory animals and delay multiple, age-related diseases.

These discoveries are quite revolutionary and could have big implications; for although in terms of longevity we were already doing much better than the generations before us (since the middle of the nineteenth century life expectancy has been increasing by about 2.5 years per decade) living longer means were picking up more age-related diseases. Scientists can now not only prolong life in laboratory animals but they can extend quality of life, that is keep them healthy and vital for longer. Not much point in extending decrepitude. As a wise observer of the human condition once said, "Why would I want to extend my life just so I can spend five more years in the geriatric home?".

More comprehensive information about this research can be found at the The Royal Society: Biological Sciences website:

The New Science of Aging

Image by JB
Image by JB

Aging Gracefully in a Youth Culture

George Bernard Shaw once famously said, "youth is wasted on the young."

If we knew then what we know now, what would we change...? A poignant irony of our existence that we don't, can't, fully appreciate youth until it has evaporated behind us. Perhaps it's really better that way, for if we were wise and knowing in youth, it would lose something of its special value.

Although youth and beauty has long been culturally eulogised, in no other age has it been so slavishly worshipped than in ours. In a billboard youth culture where image rules and every day we are bombarded with spectres of vitality and beauty, getting old can feel like a failure - when really it's an achievement. It means you've somehow been able to survive the challenges, dangers and general vicissitudes of've hung in there. You're lucky!

Keep Young and Beautiful


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