‘You would be better off spending the money on a good bottle of pinot noir.’
When Catherine de Medici came to Paris, she brought with her Italian cuisine, Renaissance beauty treatments and rumours of daggers and poison. Yet while the people called her Madame Snake, throughout her long marriage to Henry II of France she stoically resisted skewering his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, upon whom he publicly showered his affections. Indeed, he was wearing Diane’s colours when a splintered lance pierced his brain during a jousting tournament.
Following the king’s death, Diane was banished from court. But Catherine did not need to poison her. The king’s former favourite managed that on her own.
Diane’s mistake was to have a doctor who was also an apothecary. These early druggists experimented with all sorts of dubious treatments, including the use of mercury and gold as elixirs of youth. The pseudo-science of alchemy – which, of course, involved transforming baser substances into gold – gave rise to many superstitions about the metal, including a link with immortality. Gold was immutable, went the thinking, so those who consumed gold were guaranteed eternal youth. For Diane, this seemed to work. Although she was 20 years older than the king, she is said to have looked the same age. In later years, a courtier noted that she remained as ‘fresh and lovable’ as she had been at 30, and that her skin was ‘of great whiteness’.
In 2008, a French toxicologist named Joël Poupon analysed a lock of Diane’s hair, which was preserved at her former home, the Château d’Anet in Eureet- Loir. Poupon is somewhat addicted to solving ancient medical mysteries. Until 2005, nobody knew what had caused the illness and death at 28 of Agnès Sorel (1421–50), mistress of King Charles VII of France, to whom she bore three children. Working with a colleague – Philippe Charlier, a forensic archaeologist – Poupon established that she had been a victim of mercury poisoning. While this may have been a beauty treatment, murder could not be ruled out. In 2008, the same team established that the purported ‘holy remains’ of Joan of Arc – bones discovered in a labelled jar in the attic of a Paris pharmacy in 1867 – were in fact those of an Egyptian mummy and a cat.
Now Poupon and Charlier turned their attention to the enigma of Diane’s ageless beauty. The strands of hair, contained in a locket, showed a high concentration of gold. Poupon deduced that she had been a regular drinker of a liquid gold potion – gold chloride and diethyl ether – probably added as drops to a glass of wine.
‘Gold is not enormously toxic,’ Poupon told me, when I visited him one afternoon at the Lariboisière hospital, a gracious 19th-century Parisian building whose vaulted walkways surround a therapeutic garden. ‘Nor is an overdose necessarily fatal. But over time it made her weak. Her hair was extremely fine, her bones brittle. Anaemia explains her ethereal pallor.’
Poupon and Charlier were also able to study Diane’s bones, which were being returned to their original resting place at Anet from the mass grave in which they had been dumped during the Revolution. Tissue residues contained doses of gold and mercury.
‘My guess is that, like many women of her time, Diane was intrigued by alchemy,’ said Poupon. ‘The word has a ring of mystery about it today, but in fact it was the forerunner of chemistry. The term derives from the Arabic al-kimia.’
This itself is derived from the Persian kimia or ‘elixir’. The search for the key to youth proved to be the undoing of Diane de Poitiers. She died at the age of 66, but not of natural causes.
The emperor ’s new skin
Gold is still used as a beauty treatment. A number of creams claim to contain it, notably La Prairie’s Cellular Radiance Concentrate Pure Gold, ‘newly developed peptides join Pure Gold, suspended in a colloidal gel’, and its Cellular Treatment Gold Illusion Line Filler, a ‘glamorous, goldinfused potion’. Products from other brands have featured diamond and gold powder and ‘black pearl extract’. They are not dangerous – except to your bank balance.
Despite its effects on her health, Diane de Poitiers may have been right to ingest gold rather than rubbing it on. No anti-wrinkle cream can turn back time. Some have a temporary effect on signs of ageing, usually by puffing out the skin to hide fine lines: this can be done using any common moisturizer. Other active ingredients play a variety of roles. Peptides are said to stimulate the healing process and promote the production of collagen or elastin; alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) remove dead skin cells and promote a smoother appearance – but at high doses can effectively strip the skin; antioxidants can counteract sun damage; coenzyme Q10 is held to have antioxidant properties; Retin-A is used to treat acne, but may also have a drying effect… I could go on.
In 2007, the US consumer watchdog Consumer Reports tested 10 of the best-selling anti-wrinkle creams on a group of women, aged 30 to 70, over 12 weeks – far longer than the creams suggested it would take for positive effects to become visible. The tests used technology very similar to that described in the previous chapter. They revealed that the products did smooth out some fine lines and wrinkles – among some testers – but that ‘even the best performers reduced the average depth of wrinkles by less than 10 percent, a magnitude of change that was, alas, barely visible to the naked eye. Moreover, the luxury-priced skin-care offerings didn’t work any better than the drugstore brands.’
Interestingly, when the women were asked their opinion about the effectiveness of the creams tested, they found it difficult to judge, ‘and their opinions bore no relation to how well the products performed based on objective measures’ (my italics). As ever, then, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Consumer Reports has since conducted similar tests on antiwrinkle serums (‘improvements were minor’) and eye creams (‘none came close to eliminating wrinkles’).
One of the most startling denouncements of the skincare sector came in 2000, from Body Shop founder Anita Roddick (see Chapter 18, ‘Ethical, organic and sustainable’). Addressing the Cheltenham Literature Festival during a tour to promote her book Business as Unusual, she said, ‘Moisturisers do work, but the rest is complete pap. There is nothing on God’s planet, not one thing, that will take away 30 years of arguing with your husband and 40 years of environmental abuse. Anything which says it can magically take away your wrinkles is a scandalous lie.’ With a wry smile, she added, ‘You would be better off spending the money on a good bottle of pinot noir’ (‘Wrinkle cream is pap’, says Roddick, Telegraph, 19 October 2000).
The condition of your skin is the result of a complex blend of factors including genetics, diet and exposure to the sun. None of the skincare marketers I spoke to convinced me that their products worked, but they were more persuasive when they suggested creams could defend the skin against future damage. Dior’s Edouard Mauvais-Jarvis pointed out: ‘If you looked at a 40-year-old woman in the 1970s and compared her skin to that of a 40-year-old woman today, you’d see a dramatic difference. We’ve made enormous progress – and the only thing stopping us from making even more progress is regulation.’
In other words, if cosmetic creams were any more effective, they would become pharmaceutical products and subject to far more lengthy and stringent testing.
Similarly, Spincontrol’s Patrick Beau described a photograph he’d seen of Brazilian twin sisters. One had spent her life working in the open air on the family farm, while the other had left home for a more sophisticated existence in the city. In the picture, they no longer looked like twins. ‘The one who’d spent her life toiling under the sun could have been the mother of the one who’d led a pampered urban life. Environment is everything. The sun is very hard on the skin.’
In a 1989 forum, the Japanese brand Shiseido (see Chapter 12, ‘Beauty goes global’) proposed the term ‘successful ageing’, instead of ‘anti-ageing’, suggesting that it believes in prevention rather than cure.
Are consumers duped by the claims made by the marketers of anti-ageing creams? Not necessarily: research by Mintel in 2011 found that 69 per cent of consumers in the United States – where the anti-ageing skincare market is worth US$832 billion – believed that ‘how you age is mostly genetic, and external products are more hope than help’. Eight in 10 consumers said diet and exercise were the most important factors associated with ageing skin; 78 per cent said using sunscreen was the real key to preventing visible signs of ageing. While many consumers felt ageing was governed by diet, exercise and genetics, 69 per cent said the earlier you start using age prevention remedies, the better.
Beauty analyst Kat Fay said: ‘There’s a sizeable gap between opinion and practice. While there are no guarantees when it comes to anti-ageing skincare purchases, many women buy the products anyway with the hope of achieving visible results. They adopt the “It’s better to try something than do nothing” approach.’
Just 24 per cent of US consumers reported using anti-ageing skincare products. ‘Respondents aged 25–54 report the most likelihood to use facial skincare products with anti-ageing, wrinkle-reducing, and skin rejuvenating properties,’ added Fay. ‘This makes sense, as at age 25 many people are likely beginning to see the first signs of ageing and want to prevent further signs. Through middle age they are trying to reverse the signs; and after age 55 they are likely more resigned to ageing and less inclined to spend.’
Once you have them, wrinkles can only be eradicated temporarily with injections (of dermal fillers like collagen or muscle relaxant like Botox) or permanently by surgery.
But maybe there’s another way of tackling the ageing problem. How about immortality, for example?
A ticket to forever
There are few more pleasant towns than Arles in the south of France. Strolling in the extraordinary crystalline light along the ramparts beside the green expanse of the Rhône, or drinking a glass of rosé wine on a terrace in the Place du Forum while the lowering sun tints the ancient stones cinnamon, you feel as though life here would always be warmer, slower, easier – simply better.
And you may be right, because Arles was home to the world’s oldest human being. Jeanne-Louise Calment died here in 1997 at the age of 122 years and 164 days. She met van Gogh when she was 13 years old. At the outbreak of the First World War she was already 39. She smoked two cigarettes a day from her early 20s until 120, when her doctor advised her to give up. She liked chocolate and the occasional glass of port. She had married well, and never had to work. When she was 92 a lawyer bought her apartment, on the agreement that he would move in after she died. She outlived him
Calment attributed her long life to olive oil – which she put on food and rubbed into her skin – and an uncomplicated philosophy. ‘I took pleasure when I could. I acted clearly and morally and without regret. I’m very lucky.’ She also had an uncommon wit, even later in life. ‘I’ve only ever had one wrinkle,’ she said, ‘and I’m sitting on it.’ When, in her very old age, somebody bade her farewell by saying, ‘Until next year, perhaps,’ she replied, ‘I don’t see why not – you look pretty good to me!’ (‘Jeanne Calment, world’s elder, dies at 122’, New York Times, 5 August 1997).
Perhaps having a sense of humour is the key to longevity.
Others are not content to simply knock off early from work, rent a romantic comedy and break out the port and the olive oil. The quest for immortality is a serious business. A number of doctors, scientists and futurists have published books on the subject, popping up regularly on the conference circuit to share their theories.
Leading the charge is Aubrey de Grey, who at least has the right name for the job. Identifiable by a beard that would make Methuselah bristle with envy, de Grey is a maverick Cambridge-educated researcher who insists that ageing is not inevitable. He is convinced that it is possible to identify the components that cause human tissue to age – and fix them. Drawing on his training as a computer scientist, he describes it as ‘an engineering problem’. He believes the first human who will live to 1,000 may be walking among us right now.
I can hear you scoffing from here, so let me assure you that de Grey is no lone eccentric. In 2009, with a team of supporters, he set up the SENS Foundation (www.sens.org). This is a registered charity that ‘works to develop, promote and ensure widespread access to rejuvenation biotechnologies which comprehensively address the disabilities and diseases of aging’ – in other words, regenerative medicine that repairs the wear and tear that causes us to grow old. The Foundation backs a network of students and researchers.
SENS is an acronym for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. It proposes directly targeting the causes of ageing – de Grey has identified seven of them, including cell loss, cell atrophy and mutations of the nuclear DNA that lead to cancer – in the hope of systematically wiping them out.
De Grey’s ideas are inevitably controversial, but the scientists who criticize him can’t make him go away. In 2005, MIT’s Technology Review offered a prize of US$20,000 (half of which was put up by de Grey himself) for any molecular scientist who could prove that SENS was ‘so wrong that it was unworthy of learned debate’. The purpose of the challenge was to ‘determine whether de Grey’s proposals were science or fantasy’. Nobody won, and at the time of writing the money is still on the table. The best that de Grey’s critics could come up with was that his ideas were ‘somewhat fanciful’.
Writing on behalf of the judges, Nathan Myhrvold, the co-founder and chief executive of Intellectual Ventures and the former chief technology officer of Microsoft, noted: ‘[E]very now and then, radical ideas turn out to be true. Indeed, these exceptions are often the most momentous discoveries in science’ (‘Is defeating aging only a dream?’, Technology Review, 11 July 2006).
For his part, de Grey denies that he is an ‘immortality merchant’. He just doesn’t want people to get sick. He told the Guardian newspaper:
I don’t work on longevity, I work on keeping people healthy. The only difference between my work and the work of the whole medical profession is that I think we’re in striking distance of keeping people so healthy that at 90 they’ll carry on waking up in the same physical state as they were at the age of 30, and their probability of not waking up one morning will be no higher than it was at the age of 30. (‘Aubrey de Grey: We don’t have to get sick as we get older’, 1 August 2010)
Also noteworthy is the amount of publicity that de Grey’s ‘non-scientific’ research has generated. As he puts it, ‘Most scientists will get serious media exposure about twice in their entire career. And they’ll get that because they’ve actually done an experiment that was interesting. Well, I don’t even do experiments, right?… And I’m in the media all the bloody time.’
It almost seems as though – exactly as with anti-wrinkle creams – we want to believe.
A different and somehow spookier take on immortality is offered by Ray Kurzweil, a brilliant inventor – when he was 13, he turned telephone parts into a machine that could calculate square roots; later he taught computers to recognize and read text aloud – who essentially believes that technology will enable us to live forever. The downside is that we will all be computers.
Kurzweil’s theory is based on a notion called ‘the singularity’. The phrase was originally used to describe places beyond which the accepted rules of nature ceased to apply – such as the event horizon of a black hole. Later it became associated with the mind-bogglingly rapid advance of technology. Anybody who has seen the Terminator movies will be familiar with the theory: at some point, computers will become so smart that they will create more, even smarter computers, at which point they will take control of the planet and shuffle humanity to the sidelines. The moment when the machines achieve ascendancy is ‘the singularity’.
Kurzweil has a less dystopian vision of the future. He is certain that, by 2029, we will have succeeded in reverse-engineering the human brain. This will enable us to create the software we need to build a computer that thinks like a human being, right down to experiencing emotions. As computing power is growing exponentially (it doubles every year), this new generation of supercomputers will inevitably be far more intelligent than ourselves.
Sounds like bad news, right? Not necessarily. Kurzweil points out that, while human intelligence will have been overtaken, human consciousness will continue to exist. Rather than a master–slave relationship, Kurzweil envisages the singularity as a partnership. Humans will integrate computers into their own bodies, forming hybrid beings that will naturally live longer than their purely biological forebears. Artificial intelligence will extend the abilities of our brains. Nanocomputers will work away inside us busily repairing what Aubrey de Grey describes as the ‘damage’ of ageing.
Kurzweil predicts that by the early 2030s, most of our fallible internal organs will have been replaced by tiny robots. We’ll have ‘eliminated the heart, lungs, red and white blood cells, platelets, pancreas, thyroid and all the hormone-producing organs, kidneys, bladder, liver, lower esophagus, stomach, small intestines, large intestines, and bowel. What we have left at this point is the skeleton, skin, sex organs, sensory organs, mouth and upper esophagus, and brain.’ (‘Futurist Ray Kurzweil pulls out all the stops – and pills – to live to witness the singularity’, Wired, 24 March 2008)
Immortality, then, is to be found in the overlap of the theories proposed by de Grey and Kurzweil. Regenerative medicine will allow each and every one of us to reach the ripe old age of Jeanne Calment, by which time we’ll be able to radically improve our bodies using technology. Or at least some of us will. The theory also raises the spectre of a wealthy elite of supercharged immortals lording it over a bunch of obsolescent serfs. Already, the singularity has spawned a niche branch of medicine, with wellness counsellors advising clients on how to live long enough to make it over the ‘first bridge’ into extreme old age – by which time technology may have solved the problem of mortality.
Fortunately, there is a good chance that the singularity is science fiction. Previous seekers after immortality have proved consistently unsuccessful, as their gravestones attest.
And is the prospect of living forever really so appealing? Shortly before Jeanne Calment’s death, she was asked if she wished she could hold out until the end of the century.
‘No,’ she replied. ‘I’ve had enough.’