In the Pursuit of Longevity

Abigail Zuger in The New York Times:

BookAt some point between George Washington and Colonel Sanders, white hair and a cane turned from symbols of elegance to suggestions of decrepitude, and an industry was born. Not that the fountain of youth wasn’t always sought after. But to look young, think young, feel young — those are distinctly modern goals.

Ms. Kessler, a no longer young but not quite old journalist who sneakily never does mention her chronological age, decided to test a host of popular techniques on herself. “I did everything,” she tells her readers, “so you don’t have to.” She starts with the cosmetics of aging, visiting a group of researchers at the University of North Carolina who specialize in digitally aging faces. Their work provides a detailed scientific analysis of the wreckage time’s chariot leaves behind: The face alone sustains almost two dozen separate assaults, from sunken cheeks to larger ears (the cartilage actually grows). With a rendition of her aged self in hand, Ms. Kessler investigates plastic surgery options, supplementing Internet window shopping with a few in-person visits. Everything she hears is light on the blood and gore, heavy on the appealing metaphors. Young skin is spandex; older is linen and needs loving attention. “I am seduced by this language,” she admits. Ultimately, though, she forgoes major procedures in favor of a little botulinum toxin to the forehead (“the change is subtle, like good lighting”) and a variety of potions and laser treatments to the rest of the face (it looks “brighter and more alive”). Surgery on the rest of the body she leaves to those with “more money than sense.” Then it is on to the body’s interior. Ms. Kessler’s first step is a complete evaluation of her risks for imminent collapse, with measurements of blood pressure, cholesterol, stamina, flexibility, oxygen-using ability. She even has a researcher check the health of her mitochondria, cell components whose vigor wanes with age. It turns out she has the mitochondria of a fit young woman, “way too much” body fat, fabulous blood pressure and iffy cholesterol. Time to embark on the cure. To eat herself younger, Ms. Kessler starves, diets, detoxes, cleanses, and supercharges her meals with berries, salmon and all the other good-fat-filled, antioxidant-rich edibles of current vogue. To sweat herself younger, she stretches, lifts weights, runs races, and signs up for not one but two classes featuring the repeated spurts of all-out exertion thought to optimize fitness. Ms. Kessler ingests a variety of vitamins and other compounds, suspending her otherwise reliable skepticism when it comes to several suspicious-sounding Eastern teas. She lies on a hypnotist’s couch to cultivate calm and optimism. It is this forward-looking spirit which, she suspects, kept her great-great-grandmother, known to all as “Old Oldie,” preparing the family breakfast well into her 10th decade.

After a year of all this activity comes Ms. Kessler’s big reveal, and indeed she has improved enough in some objective measures of biologic age to support current estimates that a full 70 percent of the disability of age may be caused by factors within our control. (The other 30 percent is genetic, and even the most energetic guinea pig can’t do a thing about it.)

More here.