Two things happened last week. I met a man who promised me that within 25 years I might be able to live to be 150, and last Friday I appeared in a new television series depressingly entitled Grumpy Old Women. I hate the O word- you might as well say I've got syphilis, severe body odour, no friends and a big pimple on the end of my nose. But, when all things are considered, I'm not a teenager; in fact I'm a couple of years away from a bus pass. OK, it's no secret - I'm 58, but what does that mean?
Two things happened last week. I met a man who promised me that within 25 years I might be able to live to be 150, and last Friday I appeared in a new television series depressingly entitled Grumpy Old Women. I hate the O word- you might as well say I've got syphilis, severe body odour, no friends and a big pimple on the end of my nose. But, when all things are considered, I'm not a teenager; in fact I'm a couple of years away from a bus pass. OK, it's no secret - I'm 58, but what does that mean? A couple of dress sizes up from when I was 18, but thankfully I have never matured into a sensible adult. I'm still out instead of being in, drinking instead of counting units, wearing the same kind of clothes (I expect a Daily Mail "mutton dressed as lamb" feature any day now), and firmly believe that what's coming up is more interesting than any era from yesteryear. As far as I'm concerned, grumpy is how I emerged from the womb. And research increasingly shows that I'm not weird: there are plenty of boomers just like me.
A survey last week showed that now, for the first time, as people approach their late 50s and early 60s, apparently they still find working rewarding, while thirtysomethings find it all too stressful. Almost one in three older people now want to work until they are 70, as opposed to just 17 per cent of those in their thirties. An increasing number of people have rejected the idea of linking old age and fragility, and do not want to deteriorate and crumble as they advance in years. But what is to be done? Do we have to take 250 vitamin pills a day, as some anti-ageing gurus in America propose? Do we have to spend hours in the gym on the treadmill? Do we have to spend every day eating sensibly, limiting evil foods and drinking in moderation? Do I finally have to sign up for yoga and meditation? Sounds more like a prison sentence than a lifestyle to me. Which is why I wanted to meet Aubrey de Grey.
Aubrey de Grey looks like someone auditioning for a ZZ Top tribute band. He has a magnificent beard halfway down his chest and long hair tied back in a ponytail. He's 41 but weirdly ageless and married to a woman of 60. Not your typical Cambridge scientist, but his controversial theories about halting the ageing process have been causing quite a stir - he's on the cover this month of MIT's prestigious Technology Review in America.
De Grey studied computer science, and works as a researcher in the Department of Genetics at Cambridge University. As an engineer, he believes that eventually technology will be created which will be able to repair cell damage and so, not only will we halt ageing, we will be able to revert to youth. Hoorah! In 25 years' time, if the funding for research is forthcoming (about $1bn is needed at $100m a year for 10 years), society could be populated entirely by youthful people, who don't retire, but just spend periods of their lives working and then spells enjoying leisure. I can't wait. In 10 years' time, he thinks that tests on mice will enable their lives to be extended from three years to 10. Then the fun starts, as governments have to decide whether to apply the scientific knowledge to humans.
According to De Grey, there are seven ingredients in the ageing process, and all are amenable to repair. Nanotechnology (highlighted in a new exhibition at the Science Museum in London) will eventually produce tiny robots that can be placed in the body to fight disease and repair cells. But De Grey believes his theories will come to fruition sooner.
Yet if we all live to be 150, won't the world be a crowded place? He's thought all that through: we can choose youth or breeding and he thinks we'll opt for youth. A hundred years ago the infant mortality rate dropped as childhood illness became preventable. People then chose to have smaller families, and he thinks that pattern will repeat itself: that the need to reproduce isn't as ingrained as philosophers think. In a way he is right, because we are already seeing a declining birth rate among the middle classes. But isn't living for ever bad for human dignity? Won't these treatments simply be available to the rich, not the poor? He thinks that the holy grail of youth is so desirable that governments will never get elected unless they make it available to all.
Of course it would be easy to dismiss this as hopeless optimism, were it not for the fact that De Grey has attracted a lot of publicity as he tours the world speaking and drumming up funds. He's the inventor of the Methuselah Mouse comppetition (with a prize of hundreds of thousands of dollars pledged from avid fans via the internet) which goes to the first person to extend a mouse's lifespan from the norm of three years to five. He's even cheekily given his manifesto the catchy title of SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) - as in: you know it makes SENS - and plans to hold a conference in Cambridge this autumn.
We could dismiss De Grey as a hopeless optimist, a bonkers theorist and a self-publicising egomaniac, were it not for the fact that he's already attracting some interesting sponsors. One is HMX, a secretive company that develops and tests rocket engines, and the other is the Ellison Medical Foundation's Ageing Programme, funded by none other than Larry Ellison, billionaire chairman of the Oracle Corporation. He's the subject of a bitchy bestseller in America entitled The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison (punchline: God doesn't think he's Larry Ellison). Larry Ellison was born in 1944, so he's a boomer. De Grey's partner in the Methuselah Foundation is another rich technocrat, David Gobel, who started out working for Steven Spielberg and now is employed on national security for the Bush administration.
We already have an insidious gap between rich and poor - last week the Office for National Statistics told us that those who live in middle-class neighbourhoods in England now live 17 more years of fit and healthy life on average than those in deprived areas. So not only do we have a postcode lottery for healthcare, but we also have a two-tier life expectancy. In the interests of democracy and a longer life for all, I'm pledging my £10 to the Methuselah Mouse prize now - it's a lot more fun than the Lottery, and if I can make it to 82 reasonably intact, I'll be only too happy to learn new skills, be a thoroughly adaptable member of the workforce and pay tax till I'm 149!Reuse content