Why Die?

At 80, Miller Quarles figures he should have 100 good years left. And Houston's apostle of life extension is determined to find them.

The Dark Side

Oh yes, the consequences. If there's a dark side to Quarles' passion for a longer life, it surfaces when he discusses the what-ifs of life extension. Those discussions are occurring increasingly on the Rotary-Optimist Club speaking circuit, where the public relations firm Quarles hired to help him spread his message has succeeded in booking him. Often, there's a generational response to his message. At a recent Rotary lunch by the Ship Channel, most of the younger Rotarians left before or during Quarles' video presentation and talk. Only a table of older Rotarians, referred to as the "old farts," stayed. And at a recent appearance in northwest Houston, Quarles addressed the Rotary Club of Copperfield at the Hearthstone Country Club. The 11 Rotarians present sat through his spiel on telomeres and a possible 200-year life span, but some appeared more interested in glancing at their watches or checking their beepers than counting the number of divisions left in their cells.

After being told that Geron had already tested its hypothesis on rats, one Rotarian asked if there were any plans about what to do with "500-year-old rats." As his

presentation ended, Quarles was pleased that all his newsletters and brochures were picked up. One Realtor said he would join COADS and joked, "Imagine, a 200-year mortgage!"

Not all the "what-ifs" are quite so lighthearted. There are plenty of concerns related to hordes of people living a multitude of years. What about overpopulation, for example. Isn't this just the sort of thing to put Paul Ehrlich in a tizzy?

Quarles' recurring response to this question amounts to a version of mass sterilization. The idea is to inoculate youths with a contraceptive vaccine so they can't bear children until they're given an antidote by a doctor -- or someone -- who decides they're old enough and responsible enough to be parents. "What I propose is that nobody can have a kid," Quarles says. "Nobody be fertile. If you want to have a kid, go to a doctor and get the antidote."

Of course all sorts of ugly possibilities lurk about this proposal, including government-mandated sterilization of select people. Quarles admits to some of potential nightmares, but he tires of the criticism. "You expect some frustration, some concern over finding the damn fountain of youth, don't you?" he says. "This is what it is."

"You say you'll cure the old age disease and everybody wants to know what will happen 100 years from now," he continues. "They expect me to solve all the problems in the world just because I'm trying to eradicate a disease that kills us all."

In other words, don't bother him with too many what-ifs. Still, he has dealt with some what-if issues, among them Social Security, which he wrote about in one of his newspaper columns. His idea -- similar to one floated by some balanced budget advocates -- is that only seniors who need Social Security should get it. The scale would start with anyone earning less than $36,000 a year keeping all his or her Social Security, and those earning over $52,000 getting nothing. Those with incomes in between would get varying percentages of the present payment. Quarles has proposed that this take effect immediately, with the saved funds being dedicated to research on diseases that affect senior citizens and, of course, to research aimed at solving the aging process.

Such ideas don't always find friendly ears among the elderly. For many, retirement is welcome. If life spans are routinely extended past 100 -- and accelerate from there as the aging riddle is answered -- retirement won't just be moved back, it might be erased.

"One of the typical questions from old people is, 'Do I have to go back to work?'" he says. "All I can say is, would you rather die or go back to work?" The implication is that for some, the grave looks better than a return to the workplace. "The idea that you don't have to die sometimes is sorta scary," Quarles admits.

Ultimately, if the "cure" is found, it won't be mandatory. "If you could go back to work looking like 40 or 45, you'd probably would want to work," says Quarles. "But you don't have to take the cure, you can go on just like you are and die of old age."

Getting people to live longer, healthier lives won't be all expense; there'll be some savings attached as well. Payments to Medicare and nursing homes will diminish and elders who choose to return to the workplace could increase the economy's productivity and pay more taxes. That's the upside. The downside includes a generational resistance to the idea of more old folks. Even now some younger folks are worried about the baby boomers approaching their 50s. Fears among the 30-and-under crowd are that the costs of an aging populace will unduly burden them and stifle their economic opportunities. Quarles is sometimes faced with this argument, though never so clearly as when he met a woman through a dating service.

Sitting in the lounge area of the Fondren Tennis Club after a Tuesday afternoon match, Quarles sips water and recalls the unusually blunt reaction by his date to his longevity ambitions.

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