On any given day, the New York Times’ homepage is flooded with headlines about how coffee is good for us and red wine is the elixir of life. We gleefully gulp down our cappuccinos and fancy Merlots until, a month later, another study contradicts the previous one.
It’s nice, then, when a book comes along and cobbles these studies together, weighing their evidence and methods against each other with appropriate skepticism.
Out this week is one such book, Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (Or Die Trying) in which author Bill Gifford investigates the rapidly advancing science of aging and the quest for an anti-aging pill.
Gifford, who is 47, first became interested in the human body’s inevitable decline ten years ago, after he broke his collarbone during a bike accident.
“At that point I was in my late 30s, and my doctor told me it would take longer for my collarbone to heal because I was getting older,” he says. “I couldn’t really believe it.”
As a journalist he had written many articles about athletes turning to performance-enhancing drugs to fight the aging process.
In 2010, he turned his attention more fully to the biology of aging after taking a graduate course at the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where he studied with leading scientists in the field like Dr. Nir Barzilai, director for the Institute.
In Spring Chicken, Gifford sets out to meet every other big name in the longevity industry, like British scientist Aubrey de Grey, one of the most well-known and polarizing figures in the field who is striving earnestly for a “cure” to aging.
“Some people say he’s a visionary, others say he’s a kook,” says Gifford, who avoids positioning himself in either camp. When the two meet, de Grey refers to himself plainly as “the most important figure in aging today.”
Indeed, De Grey represents one half of the divided field of anti-aging science who believe human biology can be tweaked to extend our lifespans. On the other side of the spectrum is S. Jay Olhansky, a research associate at the University of Chicago’s Center on Aging and one of the better-known skeptics in the field.
“There are biological forces that influence how fast we can run, and biological forces that limit how long we can live,” he tells Gifford in Spring Chicken.
While de Grey has invested $200,000 to be cryogenically preserved after his death with the hope that he’ll someday be brought back to life, others are researching more plausible anti-aging treatments like resveratrol and rapamycin, two antifungal compounds that have delayed the aging process when tested on mice.
Resveratrol became a buzzword when, in 2008, a major pharmaceutical company began developing drugs from the compound, which is found in the skins of grapes. It became known as the “red wine pill” and was touted in the media as the new frontier in longevity drugs. But resveratrol lost much of its potency in 2013, when the drugs failed in human trials.
Rapamycin has since taken its place, found to reduce chronic inflammation and even reverse Alzheimer’s when tested on mice. Next month, scientists will begin testing the compound on middle-aged pet dogs.
“It’s a big deal because dogs live in our environment,” says Gifford, sounding more optimistic than skeptical.
In the book, Gifford watches, mesmerized, as geriatric triathletes—seventy-year-old pole vaulters; a ninety-year-old woman wielding an Olympic javelin—defy their age at the 2013 National Senior Games.
He introduces us to other extremists like Todd Becker, a 57-year-old biochemical engineer who seeks out stress in his daily life as though drinking from the fountain of youth. (Studies have shown that stress is good for us in small doses).
Spring Chicken also reiterates what Gifford calls “the boring truth:” regular exercise and a healthy diet are the safest and most effective ways to remain youthful. And sitting is slowly killing us, which we already know from the steady stream of studies, media reports and alarming (or alarmist, depending how you look at it) interactives, like this recent one from the Washington Post, which haunts us in our Twitter feeds while we’re slouching over our desks.