The Quest for Immortality: Science at the Frontiers of Aging Hardcover – 25 Apr 2001
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In 1998, so relates The Quest for Immortality, scientists discovered an enzyme, telomerase, that had the astonishing ability to "immortalise" certain kinds of cells that normally died within a short time. When that discovery was announced to the public, the press put an almost inevitable spin on it: aging was about to become an artefact of the past. Never mind that the scientists in question never claimed that telomerase had anything to do with the lifespan of humans. The discovery became a story because it appealed to our ancient interest in cheating death and living forever. A huge, lucrative industry now caters to that interest, offering the public pills, potions and powders that are meant to reverse and undo the effects of ageing.
Such fixes do not, will not and cannot work, write scientists Jay Olshansky and Bruce Carnes in this book-length argument against the claims of "prolongevists," those who believe that the fountain of youth is just around the corner. "Short of medical interventions that manufacture survival time," the authors argue, "there is very little you can do as an individual to extend the latent potential for longevity that was present at your conception." In the aggregate, they continue, we have already passed the far limits of our life expectancy, as is evident by the fact that many of the diseases that plague us today, such as certain cancers and neuromuscular disorders, are the expression of genes that have long been with us but were not often manifest, because humans did not live long enough for them to become a problem.
Adding still more years will do nothing to improve the quality of life, Olshansky and Carnes suggest. The better approach is to guard our health during the years that are ours--and to regard all claims to immortality and life extension, no matter how attractive, with a sceptical eye. --Gregory McNamee
"All credit to the authors... for managing in this slim volume... to make the subject fascinating, and life tables exciting." London Review of Books --This text refers to the Paperback edition.See all Product Description
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I think what Andrew Weil liked about this book is the authors' endorsement of alternative medicine and their mention of Dr. Weil as "a leading proponent of this approach...emphasizing the importance of the natural healing and protective powers of the body in a way that is identical to that of evolutionary medicine." (pp. 146-147) It should be understood that while the authors endorse the principles of evolutionary medicine they do not endorse the use of many popular food supplements as a means of gaining longevity, including some advocated by Dr. Weil. Of course, Weil advocates their use for "optimum health" not as a means to anything like immortality. See his engaging best-seller, Eating Well for Optimum Health: The Essential Guide to Food, Diet, and Nutrition (2000).
What this book has going for it is a clear statement of the demographic facts about aging and death, and some good arguments explaining why the facts are as they are and not as we would like them to be. In particular, we are warned about the "Prolongevists" who make unsubstantiated claims about the possibility of living very long lives or of attaining immortality. They begin with the Taoists and the alchemists, through Roger Bacon and Luigi Cornaro, to the unnamed "advocates of extreme prolongevity" who, it is implied, believe that "meditating and eating fresh fruits and vegetables" will lead to "an ageless body and timeless mind," (p. 235), and they debunk them all. In a sense, theirs is an extended argument against buying any snake oil (in bottle or book form) that promises anything beyond the actuary tables. Clearly Olshansky and Carnes see their book as a clear-eyed "answer" to authors like Deepak Chopra , the mesmerizing author of Ageless Body, Timeless Mind (1993) and many other books, who would have us believe in pollyannaish possibilities.
While I agree that some kind of counter balance to the feel-good fuzziness of some New Age authors is necessary, I think that Olshansky and Carnes may have hurt their cause by not emphasizing the fact that humans need hope perhaps as much as they need factual knowledge. Furthermore, I think the authors may have aimed a little below their readership; witness the fact that the word "senescence" virtually does not appear in the book and is not in the index. Also, do they really think that their readers need to be advised (see page 35) that Tao is pronounced "Dow"?
Nonetheless, this is an attractive book and an easy read. I particularly liked the chapter on antioxidants, which makes it clear that such supplements are unlikely to be of any value in fighting senescence. Also excellent is the Appendix which is a "Life Table" giving years and days of life remaining for males and females at any age from 0 to 110 along with the probability of living to the next birthday. If you're male and a year old all the way up to being 29-years-old, you have a 99.9 percent probability of living to your next birthday. If you're a female, extend that to age 41. If you're a fifty-year-old woman, you have, on average, 11,651 days of life left.
What I was hoping to find, and didn't, was practical advice, based on current scientific knowledge, on what I (or anyone) could do to live longer and healthier. What about diet? Avoiding toxins in the environment? Reducing stress? The authors mention that a healthy life style can add about 900 days to the average life span. Explain that to me in detail and I'll be delighted. But they don't explain it, and what little advice they offer contains nothing new.
The authors are research scientists interested in the possibilities of genetic engineering to further extend the human life span. They strictly believe in science and the medical model. They provide some information on why our genetic inheritance limits the human life span and where breakthroughs in genetic engineering might soon occur. Their science is quite watered down, however, below the level of Scientific American. They often refer to ethical considerations, but take no stand. The possibilities for genetically altering pigs to produce internal organs for transplant into humans seems to enthuse them, for example, but there is no sign of concern about the ethical treatment of other living creatures.
One of the important topics in the book is the discussion of how free radicals damage genetic material in our cells and whether taking antioxidants can help. Even here they are sketchy, illogical and, therefore, misleading. I'll illustrate with only one point. Stripped to its essentials, the authors argue that no one should spend the money on vitamins, herbs, or any alternative medicine product because the results differ greatly among individuals, and relatively few individuals would receive the greatest benefit. But what if you are one of those people who would benefit?
The authors are rightly concerned that a lot of wrong information is besieging the public, but they are unfocused on who their target audience might be. I think they missed all their potential targets and can't imagine who would gain much from this book.
Olshansky and Carnes agree with a variation of the commonly held "wear and tear" theory of aging--a version which holds that accumulated, random unrepaired damage, over time, causes aging. In their view, aging is not programmed by evolution, but results because our cells, though remarkably good at repairing random DNA damage, still do not do so perfectly. But in stating this, Olshansky and Carnes have to ignore some fairly obvious things.
First, somatic cells have, in vitro, been brought from a senescent state back to a more youthful state. So it is clear that not all somatic cells suffer from degraded DNA that induces senescence; it is also clear that the senescence of at least some cells is not the result of random DNA errors, or it could not be so easily reversed.
Second, nowhere is this supposedly critical random DNA damage quantified. Nowhere do they tell you how prevalent the accumulated damage is, how many or what genes it affects, or what tissues suffer most from it. In contrast, adherents of other theories can at least quantify certain aspects of things such as hormone levels or telomere shortening.
Although this book is written in an entertaining style that is well-targeted to the lay reader, I cannot give it more than three stars, not only because I think their reasoning is not persuasive, but also because I think their writing has been deficient in several places. Some examples:
(1) On p. 187, they start a chapter by saying that telomerase was discovered in 1998, and reported with great fanfare. This is not true. I have not been able to find the exact date of discovery, but telomerase was discovered no later than about 1989; this appears to revolve around work done by Carol Greider and Cal Harley at Cold Spring Harbor NY. The 1998 discoveries involved consequences to cells (renewed ability to divide) when telomerase was activated in those cells.
(2) One of the authors starts the book with a foreword in which he heaps scorns on the misguided health concerns of his in-laws--not a high note on which to begin a supposedly serious discussion!
(3) In a similar vein, another chapter starts with several derogatory remarks about the work of Michael Rose with fruit flies. Later, they speak of him in a more complimentary way. If the authors don't think much of Rose's work, fair enough; but they should just say so, and forthrightly tell you why. There seems a puzzling contrast between the different comments made about Rose's work.
(4) Around page 192, in discussing caloric restriction experiments with animals, they suppose that the control animals were allowed to "lay around and get fat," so that the findings would not be generalizable to other normal (not obese) animals. The usual assumption would be that the caloric intake of both groups would be regulated, at different levels. There is no confirmation that this was not the case. Some clarification could be helpful here.
Olshansky and Carnes have used questionable reasoning elsewhere as well. In an article in Scientific American around the time of the book's release, they paint a whimsical picture of what humans would be like if we were designed by nature to live decades longer than we do. Knee joints would be equipped for durability, not speed. Throats would be shaped to prevent choking. And so on. But nature does not design animals to hang on during an extended period of decline; and the aim of prolongevists is likewise not to extend a terminal period of decline, but to preserve youthful functioning. So it's not clear what their purpose is in putting forth this fictional scenario.
Aging research is a field sorely in need of clarification of important questions that are not adequately addressed by this book.
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