In the 1875 Gilbert and Sullivan musical romp, Trial By Jury the trial judge recalls the time when he was a poor struggling barrister. So desperate was he to get work that he courted the “elderly, ugly daughter” of a rich successful barrister and promised to marry her if her father threw some work his way.
The doting father assured his impecunious young colleague, “And a very nice girl you will find her! She may very well pass for 43 in the dusk with the light behind her.”
We of a certain age are reminded daily that our faces betray how we are ageing. Wrinkles are multiplying, lips are thinning, cheeks are sagging and the two creases that run from the sides of our noses to the edges of our mouths are deepening into ravines.
Now I am the first to admit that it has been some time since I was asked for proof of age in licensed premises but I like to think that, all things considered, I have managed to keep a reasonably pleasant appearance that has at least faint traces of my once boyish visage. I’m not Peter Pan but, then again, I’m not the hunchback of Notre Dame.
Why only the other day a perfect stranger expressed surprise at my fearless admission that I was 67; she had thought I wasn’t a day over 65. Yes, she was the new cleaning lady and may well have been trying to make a good first impression before even lifting the mop but I like to think that she was remarkably perceptive.
I think that the reason for this is that I haven’t got ‘It’. This ‘It’ is a million miles from the ‘It’ that legendary actresses, beginning with Clara Bow in the 1920s, had.
‘It’ is the gene that specifically affects the way us more mature folks look and ‘It’ has been discovered by scientists at the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands city of Rotterdam. They call it MC1R.
“This is the first gene we have found for perceived age and this single gene has an effect of two years,” said professor Manfred Kayser, adding, “We know there are others out there. We are just at the beginning.”
Of course, people age at different rates and lifestyle choices like smoking and exposure to harmful UV from sunlight have their effect but the genetics of looking old — or young — have so far proved elusive.
Professor Kayser and his team asked observers to estimate the ages of almost 3,000 people who had provided pictures of their faces and DNA. They found that people consistently rated women as being older than their years and men as being younger.
My observation is that proves that the cosmetics industry, overwhelmingly aimed at women, is a complete fraud while we chaps retain a certain youthful dignity whatever our ages.
The research team found variations in the MC1R gene were more common in those who looked old for their age. To check this finding, they repeated the experiment in the United Kingdom and got the same results.
It seems that the MC1R gene which produces red hair is responsible for pale skin and with pale skin come more susceptibility to sun damage and wrinkles. However, professor Kayser, writing in the journal Current Biology claimed the effect of the gene remained even when skin colour, wrinkles and sun exposure was ruled out.
“There are two things we don’t know: what part of perceived age does it influence, and how does it do it,” he wrote.
The findings have provoked debate in the scientific community concerned with ageing and dermatology.
One killjoy, Dr Ian Jackson, a geneticist at Edinburgh University in the UK questioned the whole basis of the study; asking people to measure how old people look. “Are you really measuring the how old people look, or are you measuring the psychology of the observer?” he asked.
The professor of dermatology at Leeds University, UK also poured some cold water on the study saying, “It is true that MC1R does have many complex effects on skin cells, but I don’t think that the study establishes additional mechanisms. It mere suggests that the effects may not be all related to the sun.”
However, Dr Joao Pedro de Magalhaes from Liverpool University, UK was more supportive. He described the study as “fascinating”, adding “This could certainly open up new research directions for exploring clinical applications by targeting MC1R.”
Mark Twain once observed that wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been.
My shaving mirror this morning told me I must have been doing a lot of smiling recently.