Pulitzer Prize winner Weiner (Science Writing/Columbia Univ.; His Brother’s Keeper: A Story from the Edge of Medicine, 2004, etc.) offers a gripping account of the science of aging.
The young field of gerontology, writes the author, is growing rapidly now that modern equipment allows biologists to closely study the molecular machinery of human cells. Yet the complex problem of aging remains a major challenge for researchers. If gerontologists are able to figure it out, life spans could take a big jump. (Average life expectancy has risen from about 20 in the Stone Age to 80 in today’s developed world.) In this wonderfully crafted book, Weiner explores the history of humankind’s yearning for longevity and the theories of gerontologists now working to help people live longer and alleviate the suffering of old age. The main narrative thread follows 47-year-old Aubrey de Grey, a voluble, arrogant, bearded British scientist who believes aging is a disease that can be cured through proper cleaning and repair of the body. By day a computer programmer, de Grey has emerged as a well-known figure at the fringe of gerontology, arguing at conferences and in journals that if we take action against seven types of cellular decay (repairing worn-out body parts, preventing the growth of cancers, etc.), humans could live forever. Moreover, this “general and impresario in the War on Aging” believes the breakthrough can be achieved within 25 years. Most academic scientists dismiss de Grey’s claims as wildly optimistic, but many recognize his insights and even co-author papers with him. Demystifying the workings of the mitochondria that power our cells, the author brings to life the various theories of aging advanced by researchers such as gerontologist Ana Maria Cuervo, who agrees with de Grey that “the key to the problem of aging may well lie in a kind of sophisticated detoxification of our cells.” Weiner’s lucid, brightly paced narrative brims with snapshots of scientists, stories of experiments and informed speculations on what the conquest of aging would mean for the human experience.
Immensely readable and informative.