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Early Prolongevity Writers

Although individuals had for centuries searched for magic potions and fountains of youth, without question the most influential early prolongevity advocate was Liugi Cornaro, an Italian nobleman who, in 1550 wrote The Art of Living Long. Translated into English, French, Dutch, and German, the work became the bible of many early prolongevity advocates. By the nineteenth century, the English version alone had gone through more than fifty editions. Received warmly by the popular press, it based its argument on two simple premises: First, men and women were not destined to die at sixty or seventy, but with care and a good constitution could live extremely long lives. Second, the key to longevity lay in simple reforms to an individual's lifestyle. Giving up excesses in all things, Cornaro preached the religion of extreme moderation.

Cornaro's own history became the basis for many of his prescriptions. Between the ages of thirty-five and forty, and after having lived a life of excess, Cornaro was warned by leading doctors that his death was imminent. Suffering from a variety of illnesses including gout, fever, and dehydration, he immediately decided to reform his lifestyle. "Since old age is exactly the opposite of youth," he wrote, "just as disorder is the reverse of order, it becomes imperative for [an individual] to change his habits of life with regard to eating and drinking, upon which a long and healthy life depends." (p.96) Swearing off heavy food and drink, Cornaro established a regime based on a limited amount of bread, soup, and eggs. Within a year, he found, he "grew most healthy." No longer did he regularly become ill, nor did he experience any type of mental distress; even accidents did not leave him bruised and suffering. "Any man," he wrote, "who leads the regular and temperate life, not swerving from it in the least degree where his nourishment is concerned, can be little affected by other disorders or incidental mishaps" (p. 53).

By the time Cornaro first wrote his manuscript, at age eighty-three, he sang the praises of his diet and the life he created. Having lost neither his senses nor his vitality, he declared "he had never known the world was beautiful until I reached old age." In his view, and under his regime, Cornaro argued that old age was a time of great wisdom and productivity during which he could pass important knowledge to the young and inexperienced. Aging, he declared, did not imply an inevitable loss of reason or activity. "Indeed," he wrote, old age. . .is the time to be most coveted, as it is then that prudence is best exercised, and the fruits of all the other virtues are enjoyed with the least opposition; because, by that time, the passions are subdued, and man gives himself up wholly to reason." With proper attention to diet and behavior, individuals with good constitutions could live healthy lives until their deaths at 120; even those who were less robust could look forward to one hundred years of active living.

For those who read Cornaro's work or followed him in advocating a defined regime, proof of these theories was not hard to find. Many pointed to the biblical stories of ancient patriarchs who lived numerous centuries. Adam, for example, had lived 930 years; Noah survived until 950. Blessed by God, and not subject to the debilitating routine of modern life, their long and active lives seemed ample evidence that the life cycle did not end with debilitating disease at sixty or seventy. Even in more modern times, many pointed to the long life of Thomas Parr as evidence of the reality of prolongevity. In 1635, Parr died, purportedly at the extreme age of 152. As his autopsy was performed by the eminent physician William Harvey, few doubted the legitimacy of the claim. Here was actual proof that an extremely long life was not simply the province of the patriarchs but could be achieved by modern men and women.

Following the work of Cornaro and the seemingly indisputable evidence of Parr's long-lived existence, many joined in advocating the benefits of a hygienic life. Individuals such as the James McKenzie, William Temple, and William Sweetser shared Cornaro's enthusiasm for the reality of extending the life cycle. At the end of the eighteenth century, the most famous advocate of prolongevity was undoubtedly the German physician Christopher William Hufeland. Where Cornaro set the limits to an individual's life at 120, Hufeland declared that, with proper care, individuals could live for two centuries. In his Art of Prolonging Life, written in 1797, he, like Cornaro, developed hygienic rules based on the notion of moderation in all things. The chief enemy of a long life, he declared was modern life; rural society provided the best likelihood for longevity. "The most extraordinary instances of longevity," Hufeland wrote, "are to be found, however, among those classes of mankind who, amidst bodily labor, and, in the open air, lead a simple life agreeable to nature, such as farmers, gardeners, hunters, soldiers, and sailors. In these situations man still attains to the age of 140, or even 150."

Hufeland, like many of the other prolongevity writers, based this assumption on a belief in the body's natural bank of vital energy. According to this widely accepted model, at birth an individual was endowed with a finite amount of vitality. During childhood, the body used this vital energy for growth and activity. By adulthood, it did well to maintain its supply. With old age, however, the amount of vital energy was clearly in decline. The obvious result was the elderly individual's tendency toward increasing illness and general debility. "Man," wrote Hufeland, "during the period of old age, has a much smaller provision of vital power, and much less capacity for restoration. If he lived with the same activity and vigor as before, this provision would soon be exhausted, and death would soon be the consequence."

Given this model, then, the seemingly obvious goal of early prolongevity writers was to preserve a person's store of vital energy. In advocating for less food, alcohol, or sexual activity, the writers shared their belief that such temperate behavior was essential for existence. "The decrease in the intensity of the vital processes," wrote Hufeland, "as age increases, prolongs . . . vital duration." The aim, he argued, was to live life extensively rather than intensively. As vital energy could not be manufactured or restored, additional years of life were possible only with constant attention to maintaining the body's limited supply.

Yet prolongevity writers such as Hufeland were hardly arguing for the extension of a debilitated old age. Although Cornaro had sung the praises of the final stage of life, few shared his reverie of the qualities of the senescent. Their goal instead, as Hufeland wrote, was "to preserve oneself in a state of youth until an advanced period of life." They generally had little advice or sympathy for the aged individual who had already experienced debility and disease. Cornaro, as prolongevity writers repeatedly reminded their readers, had not waited until old age to reform his habits or retain his critical energy. Instead, by focusing upon the young and middle-aged, these authors advocated the creation of a new life cycle that greatly extended the length and qualities of middle age until a painless and instant natural death ended an individual's life.

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Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 3Prolongevity - Early Prolongevity Writers, Scientific Prolongevity, Anti-longevity Literature, Conclusion