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Early Prolongevity Writers, Scientific Prolongevity, Anti-longevity Literature, Conclusion

In the Western tradition, at least since the time of the ancient Greeks, physicians, philosophers, and lay practitioners have advocated diverse means to obtain a long and healthy life. Although they hardly formed a unified group, or advocated a single method or approach, the authors together voiced a recurring belief in the idea of prolongevity: that, following specific regimes and methods, individuals could live to extreme old age, well beyond the seemingly preordained limit of three score and ten. (The term prolongevity was first coined by Gerald Gruman, whose exposition of the idea appeared in 1966). By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and often following the lead of Luigi Cornaro, such writers repeatedly challenged the notion that the body was inexorably destined to age and decay. In their eyes, the years beyond sixty or seventy were not necessarily a time of disease and suffering but could indeed be a period of activity and vitality. With the correct behavior and a strictly defined regimen, no tottering old man would exist only through the benevolence of relatives; no suffering aged woman would experience a loss of each of the senses. Instead an individual would live an extremely long life, "without loss of physical power and energy," as the leading prolongevity writer Christopher William Hufeland wrote in 1797, only to die when all organs ceased to function in a single painless instant.

Although often varying in remedies and medications, prolongevity literature can be organized generally along an important chronological divide, reflecting the impact of medical understanding. Until the nineteenth century, writers often harked backed to a primitive past, when ancient patriarchs supposedly counted their days in centuries rather than years. Pointing to a loss of vital energy as the cause of old age decay, they searched for the means to maintain the body in an active state, uncorrupted by a loss of vitality. By the nineteenth century, however, while this theory still existed among some authors, numerous prolongevity advocates voiced a new "scientific" optimism. The key to longevity, they argued, lay in the findings of science and medicine. Rather than seeing the past as a time of long-lived individuals, they looked to a future in which new medicines and theories would eliminate the many sources of early mortality and lead to unlimited life extension. And, rather than solely advocating hygienic prescriptions that might be given to preserve the middle aged, they eagerly promoted experimental procedures that would turn back the ravages of even advanced old age.

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Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 3