Paper on Aging: What can be done
Victoria (BC) Times-Colonist 30 Dec 1997
Longing for a Longer Life
By Alex Heard
New York Times Magazine
"Obviously I'm an optimist to some degree," says Larry Wood, a
hard-bodied 50-year-old who lives with his wife Candy and their two dogs
in the mountains above Los Angeles, "but I really believe we could be
the first generation that lives forever. Either that, or we'll be the
last generation to die."
That's optimism, all right, though the second part might inspire bleak
daydreams. Suppose you share Wood's belief that science could solve the
mysteries of aging someday, indefinitely increasing human longevity,
perhaps shutting down the aging process altogether.
Now suppose you die a few years before the technology rolls out. If
you're the type with immortalist yearnings, just thinking about dying
"young" would be agony.
Wood is the type. He's joined by a small but fervent subculture of North
Americans who are convinced that science will deliver superlongevity
within the next few decades, and he's determined to hang on for it.
"The thing is this," Wood says. "You do whatever you can for the next
ten years. Then the next ten years."
For Wood this has meant longtime involvement with "life extension," a
blanket term for a bulky pile of personal-health regimens and futuristic
enthusiasms about technology's potential. His routine includes exercise
(he has $40,000 worth of fitness equipment in his garage), healthy
habits (no hard liquor or cigarettes) and consumption of purported
Wood, who holds an undergraduate degree in biochemistry, makes his
living selling and promoting such products. His intake adds up to
roughly 140 grams of liquids, powders and capsules that he swallows or
injects every day.
Some items are ordinary enough, including hefty doses of all the
essential vitamins and minerals. Some are substances whose anti-aging
properties or safety is controversial--such as melatonin, a presumed
"antioxidant," or dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a naturally produced
steroid whose manufacture in the body declines with age. (Both DHEA and
melatonin are banned from sale in Canada.)
Most of Wood's supplements, whatever they're for, are exotic to laymen:
Manganese picolinate. Glycyron extract. Aminoguanadine. Glutathione.
L-Ornithine. And no one knows the effects of taking them in combination.
Wood is his own lab rat, and he's aware that his practices could be
harmful: "One person told me I'll probably die of liver cancer," he says
amiably, though he is monitored by a physician and feels certain he is
Seeking a second opinion, I faxed Wood's intake to Dr. Victor Herbert, a
nutrition expert at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and a
vocal critic of life-extension claims. He was shocked.
"This will shorten his life," he said. "It may kill him of
cancer--brain, pancreas, testes, prostrate, you name it. It will produce
Herbert's advice for Wood? More than just caution: "Don't touch this
And yet, surely one blessing of science is that it creates the
possibility of new miracles. One curse is that it can wipe out old ones.
Wood doesn't think of it this way, but you could argue that he's a
spiritual seeker. In an age when science has robbed many people of their
belief in an afterlife, he's fantasizing about a relationship with a
newer, more accessible deity: technology.
In exchange for accepting the chilly scientific verdict that we are, in
the end, little more than meat puppets--life-support systems for our
DNA--he wants somebody, somehow, to keep the puppet dancing longer.
It doesn't seem like too much to ask. The average life span in the
United States has increased by 26 years since 1900 (it's now 76), thanks
mainly to advances in medicine and nutrition. So why can't that number
keep going up?
"We know of no basic law of science that says human beings cannot live
to be 150 or 180," says Herb Bowie, an Arizona-based life-extensionist
and author of the book *Why Die? A Beginner's Guide to Living Forever*.
Bowie urges readers to regard immortality as their birthright and to
stop feeling guilty about wanting it.
Wood and Bowie may be uniquely dedicated, yet many North Americans--tens
of thousands of them--are now taking hormones, vitamins and minerals as
part of a tailored life-extension routine. A thriving service sector
exists to fill their needs through the mail and in health-food stores.
The Life Extension Foundation, a Florida-based outfit, is one of about
half a dozen whose business consists largely of selling antiaging
nostrums such as DHEA and melatonin, along with multisubstance blends
with names such as Life Extension Mix and Super Radical Shield.
Elsewhere, mass-market longevity books make dazzling promises. The
*Melatonin Miracle*,a best seller in 1995, focuses on melatonin's
alleged antiaging benefits.
Another book, *Reversing Human Aging*, says the answer lies in
telomeres--tiny chromosomal tips that are depleted every time a healthy
cell divides--and predicts that within 20 years scientists will learn
how to replenish them and deliver life spans of "200, possibly 500
years." *Grow Young With HGH* touts human growth hormone as "the
amazing medically proven" way to "reverse" the effects of aging.
All these claims are a stretch. Most mainstream gerontology researchers
maintain that the antiaging benefits of HGH, DHEA and melatonin are
dubious or nonexistent.
"There is no evidence that these substances produce the life-span
benefits that people say they do," says Dr. Richard L. Sprott, associate
director of the National Institute on Aging.
Furthermore, since the aging process is still largely a mystery, victory
dances are a little premature.
Whatever causes aging--it may be the ravages of metabolism, the
environment or a genetically encoded cellular life span--the fact is
that it's a long way from being conquered, and it may never be.
And yet, as the buffs are keenly aware, some serious scientists do
believe that research could, at least, vastly increase the maximum human
life span of around 125.
"The idea that life span can be extended has moved from being a fringe
idea to a subject for serious research," says Dr. Thomas Johnson, a
geneticist at the University of Colorado who has manipulated roundworm
genes in a way that doubles the creatures' life spans.
He's convinced that a drug could be developed someday that would
neutralize the protein products that lead to aging in cells, and he's
involved in a new company--Genoplex, based in Boulder, Colorado--that
hopes to do this. He says he believes that doubled human life spans are
possible, perhaps in our lifetimes.
Another optimist is Dr. Roy L. Walford, a pathologist and researcher at
UCLA who served as the team physician during the Biosphere 2 project.
Walford is a booster of calorie restriction. This sounds strange, but
it's based on a long-recognized fact: reducing calorie intake in lab
mice extends their lives significantly, and it's the only technique
proven to do so in a mammal.
Whether it works for people is still an open question, but Walford is a
believer. At 73, he lives on an 1,800 calorie-a-day diet, as opposed to
the recommended 2,000 to 2,5000, and insists that an 18-year-old person
who started on one now would have a chance of living to 160.
"It's quite possible life span will be extended substantially during the
next century, to 150 or 200 years," he says.
What does he figure is the upper limit?
"Limit? I don't see a limit."
I decided to visit some prominent life-extension buffs--not the academic
types, but the hopeful users in the trenches.
First stop: Nye County, Nevada, a high-desert outback several hours
north of Las Vegas. This is the current roost of two founding figures in
the longevity subculture: Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw, a
husband-and-wife team of self-taught enthusiasts who in 1982 published
*Life Extension: A Practical Scientific Approach*, an 858-page summary
of the possible role of free radicals in aging.
The book recommended taking antioxidants to neutralize their effects.
Free radicals are byproducts of chemical processes in the body. Some
researchers believe the damage they can do to cells is a cause of aging.
Critics slammed *Life Extension* as a sloppy popularization, but a
fascinated public kept it as a best-seller for months.
At 54, Pearson looks healthy--he's a tall, muscular guy--but he also
looks his age, maybe older. His signature feature is a fizzy mane of
Peter Frampton hair that has turned white.
Shaw, also 54, looks her age too. A slim, dark-haired woman who talks in
an excited bray, she greets me amid a modest dwelling that is
unbelievably cluttered with bric-a-brac and scientific journals.
The walls are crowded with images of the couple in their glitzy '80s
prime, when they dressed like rock stars and toured life-extension
gatherings and health-food expos.
They rarely leave home now. They make money by licensing their
supplement mixes, and spend their time beetling through the 50 or so
scientific publications they subscribe to--everything from *Cell* to
*Free Radical Biology and Medicine*--at a cost of $15,000 a year.
Pearson is blithely confident about the future, figuring that
genetic-augmentation techniques will become available in time to save
them by halting aging, maybe reversing it.
The longevity urge first stirred for the couple in the mid-'60s in Los
Angeles. Pearson, a MIT graduate, was working in aerospace. Shaw was
working in the food industry.
While others partied or protested, they researched the free-radical
theories, then neglected, of Dr. Denham Harman, and mixed their own
antioxidant supplements, choking down foul-tasting bulk-vitamin powders
"The doubling of knowledge in the area of aging mechanisms is now, say,
five years," Pearson says. "We're 54. The idea that science will not
understand what causes maximum life span and be able to deal with it in
another half century is ludicrous. By the time we're 80, aging will be
as irrelevant as small pox."
Saul Kent is a life-extensionist--a grey and craggy 58-year-old who
lives in southern California and has long been involved in amateur
animal experiments in a controversial area: cryonic freezing.
"For several years now, we've been able to take dogs to a few degrees
above freezing and revive them," Kent says. "I have a pet dog named
Franklin who went through that process. We've also successfully revived
animals after five hours with them having essentially no normal blood
circulation to the brain."
Kent is sitting in the lobby of a building that is home to an outfit
called 21st Century Medicine. He has asked that its address not be
revealed, because he fears attack by animal-rights advocates. As well he
Over the years, dozens of dogs have died in the name of Kent's interest
in cryonic preservation and low-temperature "suspended animation" of
humans. Kent thinks such preservation can work, despite huge obstacles
that have convinced scientists these ideas--particularly freezing--are
First, icing down bodies is a destructive process. When you freeze
someone, spiky ice crystals form that rupture cells and wreck organs.
Second, when people are frozen, they're dead. Its many miracles
notwithstanding, science has yet to figure out how to bring anyone back
Life-extension buffs often pine for a multi-billion dollar War on Aging.
Kent is starting one; 21st Century Medicine is the research arm of the
Life Extension Foundation, the Florida group, which claims that it
grossed $15 million last year.
Kent became a fringe celebrity after the 1987 death of his mother, Dora
Kent, who had signed up for cryonic preservation as a "neuro"
(head-only) patient. (Many cryonics advocates believe that science will
one day be able to grow a new body around a preserved brain.)
Reports that Dora was beheaded before she was declared legally dead,
which Kent has always denied, touched off a long, highly publicized
invesitigation. In the end no charges were filed.
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