George Orwell once wrote, “At 50, everyone has the face he deserves.”
Perhaps the famous essayist was too nonchalant when he penned that observation in 1948, when diseases like the tuberculosis that claimed his life had a higher death rate. But his view that one can mitigate the effects of aging certainly isn’t controversial. The biologist and science writer Andrew Steele backs this up in “Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old.”
Steele is emphatic that we are defining “age” the wrong way. The common way to think about aging is that it is a fixed and inevitable biological process that we must all endure with grit and grace. Instead, Steele offers up this definition: “Aging is the exponential increase of death and suffering with time.” So, a typical 65-year-old in 1921 was “older” than a 65-year-old today, since the 65-year-old today has a much lesser chance of dying and a higher quality of life due to the numerous medical advances that have happened over the past 100 years.
Throughout most of history, life expectancy has remained pretty much the same. But since 1840, it has been on a steady rise. If trends continue, by the end of this century, the global life expectancy will be over 100 years. If this seems too fantastical to be true, people living in 1950 likely would have said the same for the longevity we see today. But life expectancy has doubled in most developing countries over the past 70 years.
But people can be skeptical that these trends will continue. One could argue that, at least in developed countries, we’ve nearly hit our biological limit when it comes to life expectancy. To answer this, Steele takes us on a crash course of microbiology and genetics. He writes about why we age, progress that has been made to treat illnesses that arise as a result of aging, and what is on the horizon for remedies that may increase longevity and even reverse some aging processes, including stem cell therapy, ways to improve immunity and repairing damage to our DNA caused by harmful mutations.
Unless one is really interested in the nitty-gritty science of aging, much of the book will seem really dense and dry. Steele is thorough and seems level-headed when laying out the data, and he doesn’t appear to make any false promises, which belies the pie-in-the-sky marketing of the book. Nowhere does he write that we’ll live 1,000 years, but in the decades to come, people will live longer, and the physical burdens of old age will not be as debilitating as they often are today.
He also doesn’t say people outside the lab should twiddle their thumbs until a scientific breakthrough happens. There are a number of lifestyle choices people can make that in all likelihood will increase lifespan. Most of these are no-brainers: Don’t smoke; keep alcohol intake at a minimum; have a healthy and balanced diet, including limiting caloric intake; get seven or eight hours of sleep every night; exercise regularly. He also writes to not bother with vitamin supplements unless you have a specific deficiency: “You’d be far better off spending any money you would have used for supplements on vegetables, or saving up for a pair of running shoes.”
Given its cautious optimism, hopefully “Ageless” will age well.