by Josh Mitteldorf, Ph.D., and Dorion Sagan
(Flatiron Books, Paperback, June 13, 2017)
Everything we think we know about aging is wrong.
According to a popular theory of the 1970s and 80s, aging was supposedly caused by an accumulation of oxidation. Our energy metabolism produces a kind of toxic waste called ROS, reactive oxygen species, which attacks delicate biomolecules. The solution to this problem was supposed to be antioxidant vitamins. In Finland, a huge clinical trial was arranged, with 30,000 participants taking anti-oxidant vitamins to see if it would stave off cancer and heart disease. After just four years, the trial was called off for ethical reasons when early results showed that people taking the antioxidants were more likely to get sick and more likely to die than those on placebo!
Paraquat is a poison which is sprayed onto weeds, burning them on contact. It is the opposite of an anti-oxidant, a powerful pro-oxidant. When worms are fed a small amount of paraquat, they actually live half again as long as worms without paraquat!
These were unexpected results. We used to think that aging was a kind of deterioration, an accumulation of damage. How can we make sense of the fact that adding to the damage – pouring gasoline on the fire – can actually make a positive contribution to life and health?
The first step in understanding is to give the phenomenon a name. When harming an animal leads to overcompensation, greater health, and longer life, it’s called hormesis.
What the heck is hormesis?
No wonder we’re confused! The scientists we count on for information are in the midst of a sea change, so they are giving us mixed messages about what aging is, why it happens, where it comes from.
25 years ago, the first reports came in that lifespan could be dramatically extended by simple interventions. Life was extended by reducing the animals’ rations. Restricting food to the brink of starvation, scientists were able to make mice live half again as long. In other labs, genetic scientists produced a worm that lived twice as long just by crippling a single gene. Elsewhere, dogs were tested for the adverse long-term effects of low-dose poisons, and the researchers were surprised to discover that the poisoned dogs actually lived longer!
Of course, you can harm an animal to the point that it dies. But small amounts of harm sometimes have a paradoxical effect – the animal lives longer!
Nietzsche said, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
Science of Aging – a Revolution in Slow Motion
New experimental results like these are pouring in at an accelerating rate. Aging is easily modulated, and often it is not by helping the animal but by harming it. The message is right before our eyes, written in neon lights: The body is not trying to live as long as it possibly can. The body is dying early just when life is easy and all is going well. The body is holding some longevity in reserve to extend lifespan during hardship, perhaps to compensate for all those other individuals who are dying of starvation.
This is a new reality and it is in stark contrast to the way scientists have been accustomed to thinking. Scientists are rational, and they will adapt their theories to a new experimental reality. But scientists are also human. They are attached to their old theories and attached to the funding that comes with being in the mainstream of scientific thought. The truth is that most scientists have been dragging their feet, trying to understand these radically new results within their old, familiar theories. In truth, these experiments fundamentally contradict the old theories, but most scientists are still trying to bend and twist the old theories to accommodate these experiments.
Most upset are the evolutionary scientists. The foundation of their thinking is “survival of the fittest”. But aging is the opposite of fitness. Programmed death is the opposite of survival. Experiments are telling us that there are genes for aging, and not only that, these genes are very old. We share some of the same aging genes with the worms! That means that half a billion years of evolution has preserved the genes that destroy our fitness, genes that kill us on a schedule. It is enough to send an evolutionary scientist into a state of denial. Evolutionary scientists insist that things cannot be as they appear, and what look like aging genes are really fertility genes in disguise. Or perhaps they have some other function that remains to be discovered. We must search harder, examine the genes more closely…
If it quacks like a duck…
Mitteldorf is a theorist who has been in the front lines of a scientific revolution these 20 years. From the start, he has said, “if it looks like an aging gene, it probably is an aging gene.” Through computer modeling of evolution and ecology, he has demonstrated ways in which natural selection might indeed prefer aging genes – not for the sake of the individual, of course, but for ecological balance.
Mitteldorf is also a science writer for the people, with a popular blog and a health advice page. Now he has teamed up with the golden pen of Dorion Sagan to create a book that reports from the midst of a scientific debate as it is happening, before it becomes consensus.
Big implications for health
But this is more than an academic revolution for evolutionary science. The way we think about aging has a big impact on the way we take care of our own health, and the way we pursue the medical research.
Theories have consequences. This misconception about aging has set anti-aging medicine and medical research in general on an unproductive path, a path that cannot succeed.
We’ve been trying to find out what goes wrong with the body and get the body back on track. But the body is already on track, doing what it is designed to do, and that is to slowly destroy itself with age.
The magic bullet will be epigenetics
Epigenetics is the study of how genes are turned on and off in the body. We have the same genes throughout our lifetimes, but different genes are activated at different times.
Children grow because the genes for growth are turned on. Teenagers become sexual because the genes for sex hormones are turned on. In just the same way, old bodies embark on a path of self-destruction, all part of the same genetic program. The way to cure aging is to reprogram the body’s epigenetic signals. Speak to the body in the language of biochemistry, and say the word “youth”.
Today there are tens of billions of research dollars for new cancer drugs and cholesterol-lowering medicines, but maybe 1/100th as much for anti-aging medicine. We’re trying to cure one disease at a time. We should be trying to prevent all diseases at once.
When we understand the epigenetic basis of aging, we will be able to re-balance the hormones in old people to make them look more like the hormone profiles of young people. Aging will stop. It may even be possible to turn back the clock.
Cracking the Aging Code (Flatiron Press) by is a book that will take you the distance. From theory to practice, from the latest medical research to practical advice for a long and healthy life, the book is packed with fresh new thinking that flies in the face of the old science. This is a book for independent minds.
About the authors:
Theoretical biologist Josh Mitteldorf has a PhD from UPenn. He runs the website AgingAdvice.org, and writes a weekly column for ScienceBlog.com. Mitteldorf has had visiting research and teaching positions at various universities including MIT, Harvard, and Berkeley.
Dorion Sagan is a celebrated writer, ecological philosopher, and author or coauthor of over twenty-four books, which have been translated into over a dozen languages. His work has appeared in Natural History, Smithsonian, Wired, and The New York Times, among other publications.