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Several years ago, during the height of resveratrol’s time in the limelight as a possible cure-all for aging and all its ill effects, I wrote about my own experimentation with it (on one of this blog’s previous incarnations). I reread that old article today expecting facepalm-worthy naiveté, but I instead found my past self’s attitude worthy of a bit more credit than that:
My plan, henceforth, is to continue following the news about anti-aging treatments and applying the single sanest-sounding one to myself, letting it complement a lifestyle of varied diet, frequent exercise, low stress, high friendship, and all that good stuff. I suspect, though, that there’ll only be so many more candidates before one treatment really blows the lid off.
The comments on that post provide an interesting contextual account. Various people found my post through search engines, first to write in earnest subjectivity about resveratrol supplements’ immediate health benefits, which in every case seemed rather transparently the placebo effect at work. Then some equally transparent shills for one brand of supplement or another trooped in, pretending to be satisfied customers. Finally, more than a year after my first post, someone noticed that my story about my own resveratrol use didn’t seem to have a conclusion.
As both you and that comment’s writer may have guessed, my enthusiasm for resveratrol faded fairly quickly after that initial post. I did buy a few months’ worth of supplements at around $75 per bottle, and I read everything I could about the drug. But, strangely for a potentially world-changing miracle, I seldom came across any fresh news about it; just web-forum speculation, which I found as credible as you can imagine. (And sometimes quite heartbreaking, as well: I saw terminal cancer patients writing about their resveratrol mega-dosing, or pet owners describing their desperately feeding it to their dying companions.) It fell from my life right around the time I moved in with my partner, the summer of that same year. And then, I suppose, I proceeded to just let myself age like everyone else.
Also like most everyone else past a certain number of years, thoughts of the endgame have never strayed far, and indeed felt ever a little bit closer with each passing week. I dedicated my writing in 2015 to the memory of Derek K. Miller, a blogger who passed away at the same age I am today, and I would lie to deny any element of memento mori in that.
More practically, at the start of 2013 — five years after that resveratrol post — my own doctor pronounced my cholesterol levels unacceptably high. Well: those are numbers! A calibrated baseline! Numbers can change, with effort. This gave me a lever to use against my incipient mortality, something I hadn’t consciously realized my long-ignored hunger for. And so did I begin an exploration of modern exercise theory that culminated with my discovery that the 7-minute workout works very well for me, a fact I continue to exploit nearly every day, for my own (hopeful) gain.
In this same vein, I found Bill Gifford’s Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (or Die Trying) a very easy sell, after I stumbled across it in a bookstore last month. (A metaphorical sell; I would end up borrowing it from my local library.) It promises a contemporary survey of the state of aging science, as well as admonitions against popular quackery. I am very happy to report that it delivers.
I found the book quite well structured. In its initial chapters, it clears the table of those who purvey growth-hormone injections and similar bogosity, and proceeds to interview both professional researchers and self-taught (and often self-experimenting) laypersons across a number of fields and interests all having to do with aging. We learn the most current (and, somewhat frustratingly, plural) hypotheses about aging’s origins and mechanisms, our best understanding on the effects of exercise, and the current state of nutritional science as it pertains to age-related health.
An example of the things I learned that really struck me: human bodies possess more than one kind of fat. Subcutaneous fat is the stuff we wear directly under our skin, and nature swathed each of us in differently-shaped cloaks of it — and it’s a good thing to have, for several well-established reasons. This is the stuff my progressively minded friends mean when they celebrate body-positivity, and has little to do with visceral fat, the awful stuff that, in the worst cases, threads into your muscles and insinuates around your guts and actually acts like a poisonous anti-gland, actively interfering with the rest of the body’s work. In body types like mine, it manifests in part as additional bulge over the belt, and, yes, this is the stuff that becomes easier and easier to grow as we get older. These discrete classifications don’t necessarily represent new science, but the book describes how researchers continue to learn ways our fat deposits act like organs unto themselves, for good or ill. At any rate, it was all new to me.
For all the practical education across this and many other topics, Spring Chicken’s frame story affected me perhaps the most profoundly. After a preface recounts the life of a particular aging-obsessed, elixir-injecting naturalist of a bygone era, we (perhaps inevitably) find ourselves having a beer or three with his twenty-first century successor, Aubrey de Grey. I coincidentally read this while having lunch at a bar myself, and the book’s stage-setting here really hit home for me, as I would share on Twitter:
Now reading "Spring Chicken" by Bill Gifford. This book is relevant to my interests. pic.twitter.com/Tl65MUNkqk— Jason McIntosh (@JmacDotOrg) May 11, 2015
I haven’t written about it in a while, but I remain deeply disgusted and angry about aging, and refuse to accept that nothing’s to be done.— Jason McIntosh (@JmacDotOrg) May 11, 2015
It was aging that killed my father and has enfeebled my mother and does for countless more every day. It waits for me. I want to punch it.— Jason McIntosh (@JmacDotOrg) May 11, 2015
My parents had many years of health, well into their seventies, and I hope I have inherited this. But I don’t plan to accept that gift idly.— Jason McIntosh (@JmacDotOrg) May 11, 2015
(From these tweets, a friend linked me to the poem “Dirge Without Music” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and I immediately changed my Twitter account’s profile-blurb to a quote from it.)
I did in fact lose my parents to cancer and Alzheimer’s, respectively, just months after that motivating diagnosis from my doctor. Before that, my father struggled with cardiovascular disease for the latter decades of his life, after a stroke in 1986 left him permanently diminished. This book’s opening chapter rekindled the focus of my fear and frustration: aging lies at fault for all this, that thing that somehow leaves the door open for these same few monsters that wait to devour us — sometimes with cruel, lingering slowness — no matter how many lesser killers we may otherwise dodge.
I don’t necessarily identify as transhumanist; I have little faith in true immortality through technology, and I don’t think much about reaching de Grey’s “escape velocity”, the hypothetical future point where our civilization’s growing ability to fight aging means that every year you survive buys you more than a year of expected additional lifespan. But, you know, I’d take it, were it offered, and more to the point I feel hell-bent on squeezing as many years — as many healthy years — out of this life as I can, whether the rest of the world puzzles out the deep machinery of aging or not.
Spring Chicken comes back around to join de Grey and his more maverick colleagues at a SENS conference, concluding with a recapitulation of the book’s one “secret”: Use it or lose it. I felt cheered to learn that, years after that frustrating radio silence with resveratrol, a diverse array of aging researchers — more now than then — continue the fight against this worst of all meta-diseases. I felt relieved that I seemed to be on the right track with my personal fight, continuing to subject myself to regular workouts of body and mind, something almost all current research agrees will increase the odds that both will continue working for a long time to come. And if the book also made me question certain of my current dietary patterns, well… we’ll have to work on that.
And I felt angry, but in a determined sort of way. The book recharged my desire to do something about aging, starting with myself, moving from acknowledgment to even modest next steps to not quietly accept inexorable senescent breakdown over the coming years. I haven’t gone in for a checkup since that last time, not since all the stuff with my parents and then my move across state lines last year. So, the last of the many notes I took while reading this book: Jmac, call the damn doctor.
Anyway, yeah. I recommend this book. It made me feel smarter and hopeful and mad as hell.
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