What happens when you mix modern medical entrepreneurship with one of the most ancient of human desires, the desire to live forever? The answer is today's multibilliondollar antiaging industry, which promises everything from restoring lost vitality to actually turning back the hands of time for aging boomers. But who, exactly, makes up the antiaging movement, and what do they expect from the vast and growing antiaging apothecary? Who is simply manufacturing money from spurious claims and dubious products and who is performing legitimate scientific research? One thing is clear: by the mid-twenty-first century, America will have 1 million centenarians. How much older, then, can--and should--we get?
Sharp, funny, fast-paced, and deeply informed, Eternity Soup is a full-course meal about our quest for immortality, spiced with human vanity, chicanery, and cutting-edge science.
Bringing his signature wit and insight to the field of biogerentology, Critser (Fat Land, Generation Rx) produces a vigorous report of frontier science, charlatanry, and hope for a new, much longer, way of life. Beginning with a discussion with his septuagenarian parents, who receive "compounded hormone" treatment from a "longevity doctor," Critser travels the U.S. to investigate the enterprises "forging onward into a brave new pro-longevist world." (Crister's own horse in the race-besides finding the natural aging process "cruel, capricious and unrelenting"-is a "form of accelerated brain aging" he suffers as a result of a concussion.) Crister's first stop is a gathering of the Caloric Restriction Society, which advocates minimal caloric intake as a way of slowing cell damage; a conference breakfast consists of five blueberries and three potato chips. More trendy, and pricey, is hormone treatment, which claims to "add thirty years to maximum life span," backed up by promising trials on mice (though more recent studies have called the science into question). Critser's own course of treatment turns out ambiguously, but sends him to an intriguing third line of research, bio-engineering replacement body parts and other tissues from a patient's own cells. A light and critical eye makes this excursion into front-end science an entertaining, enlightening trek.
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January 25, 2010
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Excerpt from Eternity Soup by Greg Critser
"We must resist old age, Scipio and Laelius; we must compensatefor its deficiencies by careful planning. We must take up defenses against oldage as against a disease, taking due thought for good health, following aprogram of moderate exercise, eating and drinking enough to rebuild our bodies,but not to overload them." --Cicero
"Rubbish, I say!"
The speaker, Josh Mitteldorf, having quietly taken in the one-word critique issuing from somewhere in thehotel conference room, commenced again. He was trying to convince a gathering of the Caloric Restriction Society, gathered for their second international conference in Tucson, Arizona, that death wasn't really such a bad thing, that nature evolved the genetic program for apoptosis--programmed cell death--for a reason: to keep the planet from getting overcrowded. "I kept asking myself," said Mitteldorf, a slim, tousle-haired environmental scientist, yoga teacher, and philosopher, "why would evolution create an organism with a program to kill cells? And a lot of the answer came from looking around at the world today--at obesity, overpopulation, pollution, consumerism--and that all led me to thisquest to understand why nature made us to die." He had recently published a paper in Science about it, and...
This time there was an audible ripple of protest through the crowd, directed toward the source of this indecorous behavior, a tall, skinny manwearing a T-shirt with the words END AGING NOW! His name was Michael Rae, only twenty-nine and who was, along with his equally young girlfriend, April Smith, quickly emerging as the new poster children for the CR Society, an organization long saddled with the dour image of some of its older practitioners. Rae, who had already charmed everyone by openly flossing his teeth during an earlier presentation--the better to reduce his inflammatory burden--was having none of Mitteldorf's ideas, and instead of waiting for the formal question-and-answer period, bounded up to the podium, cranked the microphone his way, and began to recite data to the contrary. "Can someone let me use their computer--I want to look up a reference?" he said. He then went on, with a barrage of...data. "So how can you possibly make this argument?" Rae said, winding up, to an apparently unperturbed Mitteldorf. (There had been a yoga class that morning.) "How can you say that?"
I had come to Tucson at the invitation of Lisa Walford, a former president of the Caloric Restriction (CR) Society and the daughter of one of the organization's founders, the late Roy Walford. Tucson held some special significance both for the society and for Walford. About an hour's ride out into the desert stood the site of one of the first, albeit unintentional, sites of human caloric restriction--Biosphere 2. The biosphere was an attempt to live for two years in a fully contained, self-supporting environment. It ended in a rash of controversy, partly because the dome failed to produce enough food or air for its eight inhabitants. Roy Walford, one of them, had never been the same after, and many quietly suspected that his recent death, at age seventy-nine of Lou Gehrig's disease, to be a direct result of the biosphere experience. The scientific program of the CR conference included a number of highly placed scientists who had been friends with Walford, here partly to respect that, partly because, when you think about it, CR people are the only lab animals that can talk.
"You can learn all kinds of things from them," said Edward Masoro of the University of Texas; he had been studying CR in rats for decades, "but there is nothing like this conference." "These are people with a huge commitment--think about it, they are willfully suffering, in my mind, for a payoff we don't really know will work in humans," Steve Spindler, a cell biologist from UC Riverside, told me later. "Usually they are eating thirty to forty percent less than they normally would--every day. These are not crazy cult members either. Yes, they get passionate, but they are the most scientifically well-versed people I have ever met. They are amazing."
Luigi Fontana, a professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine, chimed in over a bland meal of couscous and steamedvegetables later: "These are wonderful people--beautiful people!" He smiled and went on to outline his plans to draw their blood and study their arteries and brains. "I mean, where--where!--can a medical scientist ever hope to have any thing better!"
And where, I thought, can a journalist hope to sight more fish in the same barrel? For it is true that, among CR people, there are plenty of odd characters: the vitamin marketer who eats so much beta-carotene that his palms look slightly orange; the mathematics professor who tries to get so many of his limited calories from raw vegetables that a meal with him takes two hours and a dozen trips to the salad bar; the expatriate electronics executive who normally lives in Japan and who prefers to eat his dinner off a pharmacist's scale, gram by gram; the perfectly healthy advertising executive who measures blood sugar before and after every meal; his wife, who believes that eating after two in the afternoon is "something we should just get over." There are plenty of odd events as well: the 6 a.m. meditation breakfast, in which one meditates on a repast of five blueberries and three potato chips; the sometimes mind-numbing scientific panels on coenzyme Q10, l-carnitine, PBN, and, of course, protein versus carbohydrate consumption. All of this had led, in the past few years, to a rash of magazine and newspaper articles, inevitably describing the strange aspects of the society and, not surprisingly, using it to vent any variant of modern identity politics, from feminism (there were almost no female members) to fatty-ism (it was a "pro-anorexia front") to foodie-ism. "I don't know what was worse, the accusation that we were somehow for anorexia or that we didn't know anything about cooking," April Smithsaid, a little sarcastically. "I mean, I take some pride in my halibut!"
Yet the more time I spent with CR people, the more I came to see them as utterly logical (perhaps supralogical, given the consumption-oriented culture we all live in today). For mainly a series of unremarkable reasons--usually set in motion by a health crisis and an early realization that they are mortal--they each have evolved a kind of longevity phenotype--a set oftraits--of their own. In a sense, they represent one version of what people might be like in a world of extended life spans and ratcheted-down consumption. They are, literally, cool: Shake a hand and you'll notice. They can be a little grumpy, too, but that is just those who are relatively new to it. The rest, as Lisa Walford, who grew up in the household of the world's most famous calorie restrictor and is now one of LA's top yoga teachers, explained, "just have a kind of damped-down affect. It is not depressed. It is just...different." She paused for moment. "You'll want to compare it to the mouse, of course, but what I find is people who are just not as revved up as we expect people to be these days."
They are also not very sexual, a subject to which we will return later.
All of which begs the question: Where did we get CR in the firstplace?