When journalist Bill Gifford turned 40, his friends gave him a cake shaped as a tombstone with the words, "R.I.P, My Youth." As he reflected on his creeping memory lapses and the weight he'd gained, Gifford got interested in the timeless quest to turn back the aging clock — or at least slow it down.
His latest book, Spring Chicken, explores everything from some wacky pseudo-cures for aging to fascinating research that point to causes of aging at the cellular level.
"In high school biology we pretty much learn that cells divide and divide forever and that's kind of what they thought up until about 1960," Gifford tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "Now they know that cells actually have a kind of lifespan — they have a limit to the number of times that they can divide."
Gifford says that after they're done dividing, the cells go into a state called "replicative senescence."
"So they go from being these lively dividing cells to basically retiring," he says. "And they're sitting there and they're kind of grumpy."
Scientists have learned that these cells are "basically toxic," he says.
"It's sort of like certain people bring everybody down," Gifford says. "Senescence cells are kind of the same way. Some people think that senescence cells actually drive much of what we recognize as aging."
Gifford's book not only explores the research at the cellular level, but he also looks at the history of anti-aging, how exercise, diet and stress affect growing old and interesting phenomena in the natural world — like the naked mole rat. It lives long, shows no increase in mortality with age, never gets cancer and never experiences menopause.
"They live underground; they're from Africa and they live in a colony," Gifford says. "I held one in my hand and she was the size of between a mouse and a rat — and she was 28 years old, whereas a mouse lives to about two years old. In human terms, it was like a 600-year-old person ... and she was pregnant."
These animals, Gifford says, have repair mechanisms in their cells that allow the cells to survive damage and live longer.
Scientists "recently sequenced the mole rat genome so they're looking pretty hard for what that might be," he says. "On the other hand, it might just be an anomaly ... we don't know. The point is that nature knows how to let animals live a very long time."
On the late 19th century scientist Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard
He was one of the great scientists of the 19th century; he's regarded as the founder of endocrinology, the study of glands. When he got to be about 70 years old he wasn't feeling so hot and he started to wonder why. He thought the answer had to do with something produced in the gonads, so he mixed up a little mixture of crushed up dog testicles, testicular blood and semen, mixed it all up and injected himself with it for a period of about three weeks. In 1889, he gave a triumphant address to the society of biology in Paris describing this experiment and how it had miraculously rejuvenated him, an old man, he could work through the night now, he could lift much more weight, he could urinate farther, all these fantastic things and people were horrified. ...
He was already 70 or 71 and he lived about another five years, so he did pretty well for the 19th century, but whether the treatment extended his lifespan, [it's] difficult to say. They now think it was pretty much a placebo effect.
It became a cultural sensation. ... It was called the Séquard Elixir and all kinds of quacks set up mail order businesses where you could get 10 syringes for $2.50. There were songs written about it; it was written up in all the papers. People went crazy. He never made a dime off it. ...
In a way, Séquard's elixir was kind of a precursor of the testosterone replacement and estrogen replacement therapies that are extremely popular right now. So he was onto something.
On the controversial pre-Depression era scientist John Brinkley
In between the elixir and the testosterone, there was an unfortunate intermediate step where a salesman named John Brinkley down in Texas began implanting goat testicles in worn out middle-aged men and he did similar surgeries in women. Obviously [this was] not a good idea and many people died on his operating table, but he became fabulously wealthy. He was one of the richest men in the pre-Depression era. He actually had a radio station down there. He was just across the border in Mexico because they kicked him out of the country, but he had this hugely powerful radio station that broadcast some of the early country music stars.
On the conference for anti-aging and human growth hormones
It was founded by these two doctors in Chicago who basically pioneered the use of human growth hormone as a treatment for aging back in the '90s. And a study had come out in about 1990 saying that older men gained muscle mass when they were on an exercise program and human growth hormone.
So they kind of took this and ran with it, and now, 20 years later, older Americans inject themselves with about $1.4 billion worth of human growth hormone per year and the system of injections costs about $10,000 to 12,000 a year. ...
[But] the scientists I spoke to feel that human growth hormone, far from reversing aging, actually accelerates aging. It turns on these pro-growth, pro-aging pathways. And there aren't clinical trials of this stuff because it's technically illegal for this use, but let's just say the longest [living] laboratory mice had zero growth hormone. Their cells had no growth hormone receptors. So human growth hormone might make you feel better for a short time, but it's very doubtful that it will lengthen your life and may do the opposite.
On anti-aging supplements
There's very little evidence for most of these supplements that you see marketed to older people. Supplements are very poorly regulated in this country and there just aren't the same evidentiary standards that you need for say, a drug. There was just a recent case where the attorney[s] general of several states found that supplements sold in places like Walmart had things like grass clippings in them.
On studying people who are over 100 years old
At [Albert] Einstein College of Medicine ... the theory is that that they have genes that protect them from the diseases of aging that the rest of us get. So they get to 100 and they don't have diabetes; they don't have heart disease; they don't have cancer; they've been protected somehow. So the question is: Do they have genes that protect them from these diseases and what are the genes and ... can we make a drug that can kind of imitate the action of those genes.
On how exercise affects aging
Anything really, is better than nothing. Basically, we evolved to move around, to run, to walk, to use our bodies and not to just sit around the way most of us do for most of the day. There's kind of an idea of use it or lose it and that's really programmed into our biology. The more you use your muscles, the more you're walking around, the more you're going to hang on to your muscle as you get older. That's really important because muscle wasting with age is the second leading cause of admission to nursing homes after Alzheimer's disease.
On the theory that short-term, controlled physical stress is good for longevity
[Blogger Todd Becker] believes in small amounts of stress as a way of life. It sounds completely crazy but there's actually a scientific basis to it. ... He wakes up in the morning every day and he takes a freezing cold shower, that's how he starts off. Then he'll skip lunch at work and then at the end of the day, without having eaten all day, he'll go for a trail run in Palo Alto, [Calif.], where he lives. ... I started looking into the science and cold water exposure actually has some pretty interesting affects. [There are] studies of cold water swimmers and they are healthier than people who don't go cold-water swimming. ...
The idea is this concept of hormesis — that's the stress response. That's another thing we have hard-wired into our biology. Organisms that are exposed to stress in certain ways respond to it and become stronger. One obvious example is exercise. You stress out your muscles, you lift a weight or whatever, they're damaged, and then they come back stronger. On the cellular level it also works. It has an effect of almost like cleaning up or reorganizing your proteins so they're in better shape.
On the theory that eating less helps you live longer
[There is] something called the Caloric Restriction Society, and there are people who basically make a great effort to eat anywhere from 15 percent to 30 percent less than most of us eat. So obviously they're very skinny, but they're doing this because research for decades has shown feeding mice and other animals a lot less seems to make them live longer. ...
When we were hunter gatherers, we didn't get three meals a day, we might get three meals a week. So the people who survived — or the critters who survived — were the ones who could go for pretty decent periods without food and even then, not eat a whole lot of food. So our biology is kind of tuned to survive famines, to survive low-nutrient conditions. What that does [is it] puts our cells in a sort of stress-resistant state that ends up prolonging life.
My coffee maker is texting me again. It's scheduled to make coffee tomorrow, the message says, but I need to refill its water tank. Welcome to the future.
The Mr. Coffee Smart Optimal Brew Coffeemaker with WeMo — yes, that is its official name — is just one of many household appliances being remade to connect to the Internet and take care of themselves. There are thermostats, smoke alarms, washing machines and even $1,000 Bluetooth-connected toilets.
A Google subsidiary, Nest, which makes smart appliances, likes to talk about turning "unloved products" into "simple, beautiful, thoughtful things." And the company's chief, Tony Fadell, has predicted that in 10 years, "everything will have data in it."
That's not difficult to imagine anymore. Computers are cheap and tiny. Wireless Internet is nearly everywhere, so technologists are looking to implant some computing power in nearly everything.
I will admit. This can feel silly. I mean, who needs a coffee machine that texts him? Is that really necessary?
Clearly it's not. For years, I've used a simple French press. It does not have sensors, nor does it connect through my wireless network to nag me about its needs. All my simple French press does is make delicious coffee that's a bit better than what my supersmart Wi-Fi-enabled drip maker can manage. And yet, who does not want to hit the "brew coffee" button from bed? I, at least, wanted to know what that felt like. And it felt good.
And even if they are silly now, these intelligent appliances are going to change the way our homes work. Because they have sensors built in, they'll be able to tell us when there are problems. Our homes will soon be like our cars, which can tell us when their tires are flat, the coolant is low or you've left the door ajar. Just like the coffee maker told me about the water level, when the connected thermostat we installed in our home began to have trouble accessing the Internet, its app on my phone informed me that the little device hadn't been logging in. And with all of these gizmos and widgets becoming tiny computers, we're going to need to count on them to be smart enough to help us figure out this IT mess. No one wants the air conditioner to go offline as often as the printer does.
But diagnostics are only one part of what data will do for these household objects. The other thing is that tracking data at least offers the opportunity to optimize a routine. So: Imagine that a future coffee maker might notice that I make coffee at 6 a.m. but don't pour it until 6:45. It might spot that trend and offer to push back the brew time, so that the coffee's fresher. Already, some thermostats automatically make just these sorts of decisions about heating and cooling.
The ultimate smart-home vision is a home that basically runs itself. The egg carton tells the fridge it's empty, which puts eggs into the list for a shopping app, which then delivers those things to your door. Meanwhile, the smart front-door lock knows the delivery person is coming and opens itself automatically when he arrives. All the little things that need to happen for a home to run smoothly will be assigned to your own personal army of domestic bots connecting through apps to on-demand services.
But boy are we not there yet! The real world is a hard place for little computers to operate in. Sure, I can control my Nest thermostat from bed, but because of the way our heating system was set up in the 1990s, new wires needed to be run to power it. That required getting an electrician to visit our house and a couple of fun hours in the dank basement.
And the coffee maker, for its part, is not a magical all-in-one machine that grinds and brews coffee with self-replacing filters. It still requires me to take a bunch of steps — from buying consumable materials to cleaning — and only automates the final one, the brewing process, which is actually the easiest part.
At this point, the reason to use smart appliances is not that they are better than standard machines at a given job, but that they make everyone's favorite device — the smartphone — more fun and powerful.
Internet-connected things make your phone feel like a controller for the world — and if the utility each appliance adds is small, the collective convenience of all those things gathered into little rows of icons is startling. From bed, in 10 taps, I can make coffee, turn up the heat, call a car, turn on my stereo and record a television show with my cable box.
All I have to do is push a button on a screen and something happens out there in the physical world. And that action, funny as it might be in the current forms of Internet-connected toilets and Wi-Fi-enabled coffee makers, really is the future.
Alexis Madrigal is a visiting scholar at Berkeley's Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society and is the Silicon Valley bureau chief for the Fusion cable and digital network.