The Big Question: Can We Stay Young Forever?
The smart, funny book, 'Spring Chicken', explores the science of aging
If you didn’t already know Bill Gifford’s work, you might think that his new book on aging would be a downer — or, based on its title, some comedian’s lightweight take on growing old. You would be wrong on both counts.
Not that Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (or Die Trying) isn’t funny. It is so entertaining you won’t even realize you are learning some heady stuff.
Gifford, a contributing editor of Outside magazine who has also written for Men’s Journal, Slate and Wired, takes readers on a fascinating trip through scientific and cultural history, revealing what medicine has been able to figure out about why and how we age. Consider this example of his style: Gifford explains how senescent, or aging, cells secrete molecules that cause dangerous inflammation:
“Senescent cells make very bad neighbors, less like those nice, McLatte-sipping retired folk and more like a Clint Eastwood character gone bad, sitting on his porch with a Budweiser, a lit cigarette, and a shotgun.”
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Next Avenue recently chatted with Gifford about the book, which was published last month:
Next Avenue: Why did you want to write on the topic of aging?
Gifford: I think everybody’s noticed that people seem to age at different rates. You go to a high school reunion and some people look like they’re 10 years older and some people look like they just got home from Beach Week. And it’s a seemingly random and variable process. Then I was motivated by turning 40. The realization of your own mortality hits about then. You have a little less energy — a lot less, actually. Fifteen pounds appeared out of nowhere for me. My cholesterol was bad, and doctors get concerned about those kinds of things. Aging was something I got obsessed with.
Many of us feel the passage of time through our kids. For you, it was your dogs.
Yes. My two coonhounds, Theo and Lizzy, were twins — littermates. I watched them in the space of a dozen years go from puppies to elderly dogs. Lizzy seemed stiffer, older, grayer. Theo still went running with me when he was nearly 12. But it turned out he was hiding his aging; he died suddenly. Watching them grow old really sealed the deal for me: I had to write this book.
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What surprised you in your research for the book?
One thing that surprised me was that there are these pathways built into our biology that can can be manipulated to promote longevity. Many of them have to do with diet, and they can be triggered by eating less or by short periods of fasting, even just a few hours, like skipping breakfast or lunch. What this does is it helps shut down key growth and metabolism pathways and put our cells into a more stress-resistant, pro-longevity state. Exercise is another one: Our bodies respond to activity in amazing ways. In fact, they’ve found that exercise actually stops or reverses aging on the level of gene expression; in other words, which genes are switched on and off. When we exercise, our gene expression profile starts to look younger.
Is there something about our culture that makes us so fear aging?
No, it’s all of humanity. Chinese emperors took poison — mercury, arsenic — in the hope that it would help them live longer. So people have done crazy things throughout history. It’s been an obsession forever, but I think our country and the baby boom generation has taken it to a whole new level, with things like testosterone and human growth hormone, or HGH. Scientists I talked to said that taking HGH is just about the worst thing you can do. It actually accelerates those aging pathways. Suzanne Somers , whom I talk about in the book, does a lot of things right: She advocates healthy eating, exercise, and she leads a pretty chill life, spending time in her garden, etc. But the hormones, which she takes, are the unproven (aspect). She herself said, “I am my own experiment.” I don’t want to be my own experiment.
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What did you think of Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel’s Atlantic article, “Why I Hope to Die at 75”?
A lot of people associate living to older age with sickness and suffering and disability. That’s very much a result of the way we approach the process of aging: We treat it disease by disease. Take heart disease. We cut mortality rates in half, but people’s lifespans did not extend as much as we thought they would, because as you get older, you just run into the next disease, like diabetes. Scientists say that if you could somehow modify the aging process itself — that is, how you get to the longer, healthier life, rather than more years of being sick, that’s actually more important than how many candles are on your birthday cake. Are you able to blow them out? Studies on the basic biology of aging are funded to a much lesser degree than studies on diseases. I feel like we really need to step it up in terms of research.
What encouraged you in your research?
I met some amazing people in researching the book. There’s a 108-year-old investment banker who is still going in to work. There are 70- and 80-year-old guys pole vaulting. I would kill myself if I tried to pole vault. They were the maximum ideal of this long “healthspan,” as opposed to “lifespan.” But it’s also true that in late middle-age there is this sort of tipping point you reach. Body-mass index or BMI goes up, blood pressure goes up, cholesterol. The state of your health in middle age basically determines your aging trajectory. But a lot of these (measures) are modifiable. A lot of these older athletes I mention said they essentially had done nothing until they were 45- or 50-years-old. Certainly there are things you can do to modify your health and life.