So, for instance, pharmaceutical companies find consumers readily gulled by pitches for FDA-approved products like Aricept, an alleged treatment for Alzheimer’s. In fact, independent British tests have found the compound to be completely ineffectual in treating the disease’s ravaging symptoms; its acceptance in this country bespeaks both the desperation of Alzheimer’s sufferers and the enthusiasm Americans typically show for any quick pharmaceutical fix. Jacoby bears exceptionally eloquent witness to the bitter lies of these bogus treatments, since her longtime partner fell victim to Alzheimer’s before finally succumbing to cancer. She writes movingly of seeing a loved one through the final deterioration of his basic sense of self. “You feel a pain in your gut as you try to accept the limitations of your capacity to make things better for him,” she writes. “And when you fail to resign yourself to your own impotence, you find, like Job, that you curse the day you were born.”
Such brutal fallout from age-related illness is furiously repressed in most public discussions of longevity. And once again, that repression takes deepest root among the boomers. Journalists in this age group typically stampede to the smallest sliver of news suggesting that scientific research and pharmaceutical trials might point to new and better strategies for cheating death. As Jacoby concedes, even she herself has been guilty of such uncritical cheerleading in her career as a correspondent for AARP: The Magazine, a bimonthly published by an advocacy group for people over fifty. At one point, for instance, a flurry of reports asserted that disability rates were declining at an annual rate of about 1 percent among people over sixty-five. Yet two of the most widely cited studies involved surveys that canvassed only non-institutionalized seniors—the very people, in other words, healthy enough to live independently, and therefore pre-selected to report lower rates of debilitating infirmity. “That people living in their own homes have a lower disability rate than those who are institutionalized seems so obvious that it is close to a journalistic felony to have reported the data from these studies without a huge warning flag,” Jacoby writes.
Yet the will to manufacture any semblance of good news about the aging process clearly trumps the claims of empirical truth. And as with the myth of Emily Skinner, this delusion becomes most damaging in sizing up the real fiscal plight of boomer retirees. Many boomers in the Skinner vein saw a big chunk of their personal retirement accounts—and more of their home equity—wiped out in the 2008 crash. As a result, Jacoby writes, it “is hard to see how the two-fifths of boomers at the bottom [of the socioeconomic hierarchy] will ever fully recover. The reason why poor and middle-income boomers lost a much larger percentage of their wealth is that the poorer people are, the more likely it is that their house is their only asset.” Boomers in the top three quintiles of wealth could ride out the market’s convulsions in relative ease. With the stock market’s 2009-2010 rebound, “they could expect (unless they too had huge mortgages exceeding the value of their homes) to recover much of the value of those assets and start making money again. But a struggling homeowner can’t recover an investment in a house that was foreclosed.”
This is to say nothing, of course, of the truly poor ranks of the truly old—another rapidly expanding demographic almost entirely invisible to the chipper longevity-industrial complex. After all, Jacoby argues, research consistently shows that “old people who have benefited most from recent medical advances tend to be those who were dealt a better economic hand at every stage of their lives. Rather than focus on the dubious benefits of increasing longevity through pharmacology or bionic body parts, we would do better to focus as a society on correcting the social inequalities that begin at birth and only intensify with every decade. It is undeniably worse to be poor and sick at eighty than at fifty, but the reasons why it is worse have little to do with ageism and everything to do with more general issues of racial and economic inequality.”
Never Say Die is hardly an exhaustive treatment of its crucial subject. Jacoby devotes two of her closing chapters to the debates over such topics as assisted suicide and the morality of significant life extension—subjects that only touch tangentially on the urgent political and economic questions at the heart of her book. (Indeed, toward the end of the ethics-of-longevity section, she wanders into a reverie about the post-human future, only to concede that “whether humanity might one day evolve into or be forcefully replaced by another species does not seem relevant to the issue of whether it is a good idea to work on extending the human life span.” You don’t say.)