Thursday, Mar. 12, 2009


When Simon Cowell let slip last month that he planned to have his corpse cryonically preserved, wags suggested that the snarky American Idol judge may have already tested the deep-freezing procedure on his face. In 2007, Cowell, now 49, told an interviewer that he used Botox. "I like to take care of myself," he said. Cowell is in show biz, where artifice routinely imitates life. But here's a fact startling enough to raise eyebrows among Botox enthusiasts: his fellow Brits, famously unconcerned with personal grooming, have tripled the caseload of the country's cosmetic surgeons since 2003. The transfiguration of the snaggletoothed island race is part of a phenomenon taking hold around the developed world: amortality.

You may not have heard of amortality before — mainly because I've just coined the term. It's about more than just the ripple effect of baby boomers' resisting the onset of age. Amortality is a stranger, stronger alchemy, created by the intersection of that trend with a massive increase in life expectancy and a deep decline in the influence of organized religion — all viewed through the blue haze of Viagra.

Amortals live among us. In their teens and 20s, they may seem preternaturally experienced. In later life, they often look young and dress younger. They have kids early or late — sometimes very late — or not at all. Their emotional lives are as chaotic as their financial planning. The defining characteristic of amortality is to live in the same way, at the same pitch, doing and consuming much the same things, from late teens right up until death.

Cowell is one of their poster boys; so too is France's Nicolas Sarkozy, as mercurial as a hormonal teenager. Madonna is relentlessly amortal. It's easier to diagnose the condition in the middle-aged, but there are baby amortals — think Mark Zuckerberg, the world's youngest self-made billionaire, who looks set to comport himself like a student geek to the end of his days. The eldest amortals, born long before the first boomer wave, are still making mischief around the world.

Amortals don't just dread extinction. They deny it. Ray Kurzweil encourages them to do so. Fantastic Voyage, which the futurist and cryonics enthusiast co-wrote with Terry Grossman, recommends a regimen to forestall aging so that adherents live long enough to take advantage of forthcoming "radical life-extending and life-enhancing technologies." Cambridge University gerontologist Aubrey de Grey is toiling away at just such research in his laboratory. "We are in serious striking distance of stopping aging," says De Grey, founder and chairman of the Methuselah Foundation, which awards the Mprize to each successive research team that breaks the record for the life span of a mouse. It is "bleeding obvious," he adds, that it is possible to extend the human life span indefinitely. "Most people take the view that aging is this natural thing that is going on independently of disease. That's nonsense. The fact is that age-related diseases are age-related diseases because they're the later stages of aging."

For all the optimism about how science may prolong life, mice and humans keep turning up their toes. No matter how much the government bullies and cajoles, amortals rarely make adequate provision for their final years. Yet even as faltering amortals strain the public purse, so their determination to wring every drop out of life brings benefits to the private sector. They prop up the tottering music industry, are lifelong consumers of gadgets and gizmos, keep gyms busy and colorists in demand. From their youth, when they behave as badly as adults, to their dotage, when they behave as badly as youngsters, amortals hate to be pigeonholed by age. They're a highly sexed bunch. Viagra and its cousins help give elderly amortals a pleasurable alternative to aqua aerobics while blotting out those pesky intimations of mortality. At the Coco de Mer erotica shop in Los Angeles, which offers instruction in subjects like "Being a Mistress in the Bedroom," patrons recently included two women in their 80s. "They were both like, 'Help — we want to have fun,'" says the store's owner, Justine Roddick.

Notions of age-appropriate behavior will soon be relegated as firmly to the past as dentures and black-and-white television. "The important thing is not how many years have passed since you were born," says Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, "but where you are in your life, how you think about yourself and what you are able and willing to do." If that doesn't sound like a manifesto for revolution, it's only because amortality has already revolutionized our attitudes toward age.