Examination of the science behind humanity’s obsession with aging and staving off death.
The oldest recorded person was Madame Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122. She was not exactly an exemplar of good health either; she smoked until she was 117. By contrast, the oldest clam was 507. Can humans learn something about aging from clams? Is it possible to plan for a long life? Those are only some of the questions Outside correspondent Gifford (Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer, 2007) tackles in his exploration of not only the health industry’s advancements—e.g., controversial hormone therapies—to prolong life expectancy and reduce the effects of aging, but also the cultural perspectives that underscore the evolutionary drive to live as long and comfortably as possible. The author points out the underlying contradiction that while life expectancy has climbed significantly in recent years, the overall health of the population is getting worse. This conundrum cannot easily be answered, but the ethical quandaries related to these medical advances lead to an alternative argument that there is simply no limit to human life. One particularly fringe idea is parabiosis, or surgically pairing a young body to an old one, thereby “distributing” the youth. Gifford chronicles other seemingly sci-fi techniques that are striving for legitimacy and expertly explains complex science in layman’s terms. He also analyzes studies of Alzheimer’s and other disorders and diseases that cause significant cognitive decline. Perplexing still is the fact that people age differently, and there is no predictor why some people live to be 100 in great physical and mental health while others suffer severe debilities at relatively younger ages. The only reasonable prescription for living a long and healthy life is, somewhat anticlimactically, simply exercising and eating right.
Gifford skillfully navigates the many strands of aging research to create an entertaining narrative of the perils of getting old.