Long time coming

I have a friend who is obsessed with immortality, and not in the figurative sense: He doesn't want to accomplish a feat so great that his name will live forever; he wants to live forever. He's on the Internet daily, like some cyber Juan Ponce de León, looking up the latest developments in longevity science on the Web pages of scientific organizations and in abstracts of hardcore scientific papers. Just the other day, he said, "You know, there are lots of scientists who believe the first immortal man is alive today." This led to an interesting, if somewhat pedantic, discourse on telomeres and synapses and such. Hey, I never said my friends weren't kooks.

But maybe he's less kooky than I think. On Wednesday, PBS will premiere Stealing Time: The New Science of Aging, a documentary that looks at the advances being made in the effort to increase the human life span. While the show's creators aren't as optimistic (if you want to call it that) as my friend about how long our life expectancy could soon be extended, they do believe that people could live 150 to 200 years or more. Many people living today, they say, will not see just the 21st century, but the 22nd as well.

Stealing Time is divided into three one-hour episodes, each of which looks at a different area of the science of aging. Part One, "Quest for Immortality," looks at recent breakthroughs in longevity science. Part Two, "Turning Back the Clock," focuses on the reversal of aging. Part Three, "Mastering the Mind," shows us a new way to think about being old--that it doesn't have to mean mental decrepitude.

The idea of living to be 200 or more years old is certainly a fascinating one. (Although, personally, I'm probably not going to want to live my life in perpetual middle age while younger generations reap the rewards of everlasting nubility. So if they're going to figure this thing out, I wish they'd do it soon.) But it raises several intriguing questions. If longevity comes in the form of a drug or operation, to whom will it be granted? Everyone? What will our society be like if our life span is doubled or tripled? What will happen to the institutions of marriage and family? What about overpopulation? Everything, from schooling to criminal justice to politics to religion, could be drastically changed if people start living so much longer.

And there's one more big question here, one that many people will be asking: Am I going to have to work for another 150 years?

--Larra Ann Robertson

Stealing Time: The New Science of Aging airs on PBS at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

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Larra Ann Robertson