To remain young, or at least to look young, is an ideal that is growing stronger and stronger. Aging and death must be combated; staying young and living a long life are important. You have to work out and maintain your health.

This may seem to be a modern ideal, but it isn’t really. Humankind’s struggle to extend longevity, and the dream of perpetual youth, is rooted far back in history. Notions of how to achieve the dream have also been surprisingly similar throughout the ages.

“The foundations of the practical advice are the same from the 18th century to our day. It’s a matter of eating and drinking in moderation, living naturally, sleeping well, exercising, living the life of the country, and breathing fresh air,” says Janicke Andersson, who is defending her doctoral thesis at NISAL (National Institute for the Study of Ageing and Later Life), Linköping University, in Sweden. She has studied historical handbooks on how to prolong your life and compared them with today’s debate and advice books.

In the 18th century, the idea was that humans had an optimal age, all the way up to 250 years (which was supposed to be the age of the patriarchs), but that we had degenerated and thus live considerably shorter lives. It should be possible to reach our optimal age by living properly.

Today there is no upper limit to how long we believe we should be able to live. Institutions like the Immortality Institute and the Life Extension Institute and associations like the Transhumanists strive for longer, or even eternal, life on earth. With transplant surgery we can replace worn-out body parts; hormone injections and pills will slow down aging; and dead people can be frozen in the hope of being thawed out again when it has become technologically possible to revive them.

Maintaining your health and striving for a long life have become moral issues. The message is that with the right lifestyle it is possible to prevent aging and retain your youthful appearance. Being decrepit is thus a sign of moral turpitude. The life cycle itself has become a personal project that is all about self-control and self-discipline. It’s not simply a matter of living a long time but also of living actively. Successful Aging and Active Aging are movements of our time.

“How you age is something you yourself decide. It’s up to you­it depends how you deal with the situation,” is advice from a modern handbook.

Previously religion was used to underpin this message. Only a good Christian could achieve a long life. Today, health movements have taken over this old rhetoric. The popular stone-age diets, for instance, are based on the notion that we have lost our state of paradise, the Garden of Eden, which we can find our way back to.

“We want to attain eternal life, but we want to do it all here on earth and make up the rules of the game ourselves,” writes Janicke Andersson.

The dissertation is titled The Art of Living a Long Life (in Swedish).

Janicke Andersson can be reached at phone: +46 11-36 34 02 or +46 13-77 197; cell phone: +46 708-41 46 53; e-mail: janicke.andersson@isv.liu.se