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The Other News Round-Up: Death, be not proud

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you some of the world’s more surreal news bites. This week: death, the great equaliser.

It is said that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. That is true. It’s called Life. – Terry Pratchett

I didn’t quite believe it when I heard Hugh Hefner had died. You don’t see many people popping up as a top search term next to bombshells from multiple eras: Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Stratten, Pamela Anderson, Anna Nicole Smith, Paris Hilton. It’s the kind of track record that makes you believe a person will always be alive. Or at least that they’ll be able to trick the fellow with the sickle into skipping over their jacuzzi until someone comes up with an anti-ageing potion.

But death comes for all of us, even Hef, and he’s been a busy fella. I’ve said goodbye to three family members in the space of a month myself, so I know for a fact Death is hard at work trying to earn his year-end bonus. (Funny enough, news also broke this week that just as we get a handle on HIV/Aids, it emerges that antiretrovirals have cardiac implications – and just as we get a grip on heart disease, drug-induced deaths reach an all-time high. We really can’t outrun death.)

The two certainties in life are supposedly death and taxes,” one tabloid journalist drily wrote, with unusual self-reflexivity for an article which discussed, without interrogation, returns from the dead. “For some the latter isn’t always strictly true, which leaves just death.”

And death is always a surprise, isn’t it? Even when we are expecting it. As J.K. Rowling puts it in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:

Death’s got an Invisibility Cloak?” Harry interrupted again.

So he can sneak up on people,” said Ron. “Sometimes he gets bored of running at them, flapping his arms and shrieking.”

Yet bizarrely, despite the indisputable threat that is overpopulation, and the fact of life that is death, human beings are trying to defy it with increasing determination. The Guardian previously reported that hedge fund manager Joon Yun had been working on this head-scratcher: according to his calculation, the probability of a 25-year-old dying before their 26th birthday is 0.1%. If we could keep that risk constant throughout life instead of it rising due to age-related disease, the average person would – statistically speaking – live 1,000 years. Yun reckons this is a perfectly reasonable expectation and has plunked down his money where his mouth is, launching massive cash prizes challenging scientists to push the human lifespan to its maximum.By 2017, this concept had apparently caught on enough that even marketers were taking it seriously: how does one market to potential 1,000-year-olds that have already been born?

More specifically, one might ask, how does one prevent boredom over the span of a thousand years, when already the information overload we face every day has given most of us the attention span of a gnat? But I digress.

Yun is not alone. Billionaires Peter Thiel, Larry Ellison, Sergey Brin and Larry Page have all thrown money at the problem of ageing. Mark Zuckerberg has too, even though it’s debatable whether he’s hit puberty yet.

By 2013, 3D “printing” of cells was established and extending life by several decades was a very real possibility. By 2016, research by the Salk Institute suggested that the average life expectancy could be extended by as much as a third, through cellular reprogramming.

The global anti-ageing industry was worth $250-billion in 2016 and is estimated to be growing at a compound annual growth rate of 5.8%, to reach $331.41-billion by 2021. In efforts to chase eternal youth, human beings have attempted tricks as diverse as urine facials (to be fair, a great-aunt of mine called urine “the water of life” and although her morning face-wash never caught on among her nieces, she did have beautiful skin into her 90s); blood facials, made popular by the Kardashians (who else?), and cryogenic chambers. Yes, people are literally doing what Austin Powers did and stepping into freezing chambers. Snail slime and semen are also popular anti-ageing remedies.

Then there are the pills and potions: trademarked Longevinex® capsules, which is “more than plain resveratrol”. It “molecularly mimics a low-calorie diet” and, along with its companion drug, Advantage, apparently results in a “youthful appearance”. There’s Isagenix Ageless Renewal Serum too, which contains “raw constituents” that “skin cells need to thrive”.

If you are prepared to nose about the internet a little more, you’ll find every possible piece of advice ranging from flossing (really!) to adopting a religion; being less stressed to being more stressed; all of which are said to be scientifically proven to make one live longer.

But why? 

We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up,” writes Lemony Snicket. “And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.”

One memorial I attended in the last few weeks brought this up starkly. It was someone who lived well and died young. Death sneaked up, wearing that terrible Invisibility Cloak.

But I kept coming back to the words of Mark Twain: “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” DM


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