BY ZACHARY FLETCHER
For as long as human beings have had life, they have been trying to either survive or extend it.
On December 30, 1999, Sarah Knauss entered the final day of her life at a nursing home in Pennsylvania. Despite the loss of her hearing and recent doses of oxygen, she was not ill at the time. The week before, she visited her hairdresser and wished a volunteer at her nursing home a Happy New Year. At the time, Knauss had a daughter, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren.
Knauss passed away peacefully that afternoon, two days short of the year 2000. It would have been the third different century of her life. She was 119.
At the time of her death, Knauss—born in 1880—held the crown of the oldest person alive. She was part of a group of supercentenarians pushing the upper limits of human longevity. The current average life expectancy for the U.S. population is 76.1 years, but many live beyond these estimates. The number of centenarians (those at or over the age of 100) is projected to reach more than 25 million by 2100.
The modern movement striving for this longevity is one of abundance. The “anti-aging” industry is estimated to be worth $600 billion by 2025. Researchers are beginning to pinpoint the maximum length of human lives. One study, published in 2021, found that the upper limits of human lifespans could lie around 120-150 years.
Outside of Silicon Valley, there are a number of different worldviews committed to aging and death and our ability to change it—life-extensionists, longevists, super-longevists, anti-death activists, and anti-aging activists.
James Strole, the executive director of the Coalition for Radical Life Extension—a nonprofit based in Arizona that connects people who seek to alter their lifespans—prefers the immortality worldview.
“I want to live with vitality and strength in an unlimited way,” he said in a recent interview.
Strole’s organization hosts a yearly event called RAADfest—the Revolution Against Aging and Death Festival. RAADfest (a “Woodstock for radical life extension,” Strole said) features speakers from the longevity and life-extension community. At the first RAADfest in 2016, Strole—who has no scientific background—recalled sharing what the movement is about: “I said, ‘Look, we shouldn’t be fighting each other on this planet, we should be fighting our worst enemy: aging and death.’”
Back in the late 1990s, Knauss offered a view on her lifespan. According to a local paper, when she was told about being the oldest living person alive, Knauss replied, “So what?”
For as long as human beings have had life, they have been trying to either survive, extend, or immortalize it—and altering life has often involved considerations of older age.
In 1550, an Italian nobleman named Louis Cornaro wrote, “I never knew the world was beautiful until I reached old age.”
A popular view at the time of his writing was that humans were endowed with a certain amount of “vital energy,” according to Carole Haber, a professor of history at Tulane University and the author of a 2004 paper on the history of longevity movements. The key to living longer, they believed, was maintaining and conserving this energy through moderation in diet and lifestyle.
During the Enlightenment, this view of older age persisted in the minds of prominent 17th– and 18th-century thinkers. Many during this time saw old age as a unique stage in life.
“It’s [aging]good if you are economically viable. And a man,” Haber said in a recent interview.
In the 1800s, scientific discovery in France rapidly altered this view of aging. Paris became the first site of autopsies linking physiological changes in the body (like damaged arteries, eyes, or hearing) to old age itself. Physicians in the 19th century began questioning the course of aging: What is part of the aging process, and what is a disease?
“And they came to the conclusion … that what is normal is a disease. And that disease is called aging,” Haber said. Aging was then something to attack or solve.
Haber cites a small—“though well-publicized”—group of men in the early 20th century who took charge in the fight to reverse aging with sexual gland transplants. This notion of attacking aging persists into the 21st century with a modern approach. Strole told me he has used stem cell therapy and nutritional supplements to keep his body “vibrant.”
Longevity Escape Velocity and Immortality
One theory of today’s immortalists like Strole is the longevity escape velocity, the notion that technology advances in prolonging life will exceed the rate of aging bodies. Strole hopes to “live long enough to live forever.”
Matt Kaeberlein, a former professor of pathology and former director of the Healthy Aging and Longevity Research Institute at the University of Washington, emphasized to me that “there’s just no evidence that we’re getting closer to that at this point, based on published peer-reviewed scientific data.”
The scientific possibilities around extending our healthspans only come with dedicated resources and attention. “The probability of what could be accomplished is sort of lost when you talk about unrealistic expectations,” Kaeberlein says.
Increasing lifespans to 150 years may be an achievement, “but who is that going to benefit if that’s not available to everyone?” says Alessandro Bitto, an acting assistant professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the University of Washington. He points out that many people still fall below the median life expectancy.
While the language and financial incentives around altering lifespans may be recent innovations, the modern characterization of older age—as a stage in life, as an economic threat to American progress, and a foil to the early days of Cornaro—morphed into something akin to death. Haber writes that the new anti-age movement’s “ideas and actions ultimately serve to marginalize the very process of growing old.”
In 2017, the aging philosopher and Professor of Gerontology Jan Baars wrote, “we do not die because we have become old but because we have been born as finite human beings: death is given with life.”
As one moderator put it at the 2023 RAADfest, many people don’t just want to make life last longer—they want to make life last. Strole himself claims that “we learn to take on the mortal mind.”
But Baars proposed a “repositioning of aging,” as learning to live a finite life that views aging not as a problem but as a process, one with which we are all engaged. Many organizations have dedicated resources to understanding the later stages of our finite lives. The founding of the American Geriatrics Society and The Gerontological Society of America, Haber wrote in the 2004 study, worked to separate “normal” old age from “treatable, pathological conditions.”
“You know, it’s really very peculiar. To be mortal is the most basic human experience and yet man has never been able to accept it, grasp it, and behave accordingly,” Milan Kundera wrote in Immortality. “Man doesn’t know how to be mortal.”
Learning to live within this paradigm of aging is and will always be part of our history. Part of being human is grappling with what it might mean not to be.
Zachary Fletcher is a freelance journalist covering aging and other news, most recently for The Kitsap Sun/USA Today. His work has appeared in PBS’s Next Avenue and The Sacramento Bee, among other publications. He lives in Seattle with his partner. Learn more about him at https://fletcherzachary.weebly.com/.
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