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Shock Of The New About Not Getting Old

It was a week for the young of heart, at least. Within a matter of days, we got news that astronauts had broken the age barrier and that scientists had broken the Hayflick limit.

John Glenn, who orbited the planet in 1962, will head back into space at 77, a full 16 years older than any predecessor. Meanwhile the rule established in 1965 by Leonard Hayflick that human cells - and maybe human beings - had finite lives was shattered in a Texas laboratory.

From the Senate to Biotechland there is talk of Methuselahs and Fountains of Youth.

At the medical center where the cells regained their youthful vigor, Dr. Jerry Shay says, “We found that biological aging can be put on hold.”

At NASA, where Glenn was brought back for an encore, Administrator Daniel Goldin says, “Children will look at their grandparents differently.” But without the names, it would have been hard to tell who was commenting on lab cells and who on senior spacemen.

For all the astro-geezer jokes, for all the grumps, Glenn’s announcement induced a surge of delight unmatched by George Bush’s geriatric jump from a plane. Glenn accepted the mission “on behalf of everybody my age and older and those who are about to be our age before too many years have gone by. …”

The whole thing reminded me again how complex our national attitudes on aging have become.

In the past year alone, we’ve cheered and jeered a 63-year-old mother. We’ve talked about raising the age of Social Security because we live longer. And lowering the age of Medicare in case we get ill earlier. We applaud the 77-year-old going into space and worry about the 80-year-old going out on the highway.

In writing about the senior spaceman who pumps iron and exercises every day, someone described him as having a fitness that “belied his age.” But at exactly the same age, a man can be as hale as Glenn in space or as frail as Pope John Paul in Cuba. Is one telling the “truth” and the other “belie-ing?”

As the lab begins to tease us with thoughts of immortality, growing old has already become less and less of a linear process, a coherent time line, like passing from the terrible 2s to the 4-year-old “whys.” Somewhere in late middle age there is now another kind of adolescence where we are unsure what to expect and how to behave. It’s hard to find the threshold to old.

“Using a date of birth for throwing a person out of a job these days,” said Stanley Mohler, director of aerospace medicine at Ohio’s Wright State University, “is a branch of astrology, really.” But astrology is as popular as ever and we react to age like a true Gemini. We applaud elders with a work ethic and fire 55-year-olds because they are too old.

In many ways, we have already changed the way children look at their grandparents. But we are just beginning to change the way we look at being or becoming elders. Whether the biotech promises of longer life come true or not, 100 million of us will be over 65 in 50 years. Yet we haven’t yet figured out what that long life span is about, how to use it, how to value it.

Indeed, it seems to me we are an aging population with an intact youth culture that fits fewer and fewer of us. Can science change that? Can Glenn?

John Glenn may be no more a role model for his 70-something set than Sophia Loren is for women over 60. And many prefer the rocking chair to the rocket. On hearing the space news, my own uncle who flew in World War II said with amusement that he’d only go into the heavens on the last one-way ticket.

But 36 years ago, a “gung-ho,” “Dudley Do-Right” astronaut was sent up to change American attitudes. We were deep in the Cold War and a Russian cosmonaut had already circled the world and shaken our confidence. Glenn went into orbit for five hours and splashed down to a different, more hopeful country.

This time, when he “lights the candle,” as the astronauts like to say, he’ll be lighting 77 candles. If this elder can make a difference again in the way we look ahead: mission accomplished.