Monday, April 25, 2016

Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever

Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (or Die Trying)Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever by Bill Gifford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Always intriguing, often fascinating, at times frustrating.

My maternal grandmother lived until she was 96 and enjoyed good health until her last year. My maternal grandfather lived 79 years and passed away rather suddenly. My mother, who has been an insulin-dependent diabetic since I was four years old and who had a heart attack and double bypass a few years ago, should, statistically speaking, have been dead a long time ago. Decades, really. But Mom presses on. I'm an optimist when it comes to my health, so I like to think that I'll live as long as my grandmother did. If that's the case, then I have not yet hit middle age . . . though, technically, I have.

The wildcard in all of this is my paternal side. My father was adopted, and I know next to nothing about my biological grandparents or my family medical history on that side of the chain. Dad is in his mid-70s and seems to be in pretty darned good health, overall.

This past week, I was speaking with my dad on the phone, making arrangements for a trip me, my wife and most of our kids will be taking out west. We'll spend a few days in California as part of the trip, visiting my parents. My dad said he wanted me to go with him to the Air Force base (he is a veteran, having served 26 years) and . . . figure out what needs to be done about funeral arrangements for him and my Mom, when that time should come.

Perfect timing for me to be reading this book, huh?

I think my interest in this subject has been with me for a long time. I had this notion when I was younger that I was going to die at 36 years old. Not sure why, but it's what I thought. 36 has come and gone, and I am still here, but I am also keenly aware of my own mortality. Also, I like to think of myself as "young at heart" - I keep telling my kids that my thoughts are still those of a 16 year old - but some signs of aging are becoming more and more obvious. I've had gray hair for a long time, something I inherited from Dad, whose hair started to go gray after an appendectomy when he was in his early 30's, then quickly went to white. I have to work triply hard to keep my gut down. My back mishap and surgery a couple of years ago added a painful exclamation point to the story of my life, emphasizing my age, though my recovery has been very good, startling even to me! So, yes, I'm getting older. But I don't really feel that old. Not in my mind, at least. And I don't even feel that old in body, just a touch slower and more hesitant, but that would have been the case even if I had my back mishap in my teens or twenties. Important safety tip: Be careful with that back!

I heard about this book, as has happened before, through an interview with the author on NPR's "Fresh Air". Since I was (and am still) approaching middle age, I thought I'd give it a read.

Spring Chicken covers the gamut of aging research and, as of it's release, is very up-to-date on the latest developments in the science of aging. What's amazing is how much we don't know. Scientists are still puzzling over what it is that drives aging. It was once thought that cells were pre-programmed to die, but it appears, more and more, that this is not the case. I'll avoid all the spoilers, but let's just say that your body is built to keep going and going and going . . . and that might be part of the problem. This was one of the more fascinating things about the book, that aging isn't necessarily inevitable. I know, crazy talk, right? That's what I thought at first, but Gifford and a supporting cast of scientists make some pretty compelling arguments. If you really want to understand the arguments, though, you're going to need some basic understanding of cellular mechanics, which I'm not going to go over here, but which you can read about elsewhere. Gifford does a decent job of outlining the basics, but I found myself tapping into the old brain for deeper understanding.

Maybe that's just because I'm getting old.

Another symptom of getting old is getting cranky. Maybe it's because you realize you don't have time to waste on frivolous stuff that you aren't intentionally seeking. I'm all about making down-time, time to just stare at a wall for a while. But when others make it for me, I'm not always the happiest camper. This is where my annoyance with Gifford comes into play. This was a great book, but time and time again, Gifford got in the way of his story. At times his self-effacing humor was cute, even funny. But a lot of the time, it was just plain unnecessary and took away from the power of the narrative. I'm not sure if this was all him or if his editor thought it would make the book more entertaining, but, either way, the sheer volume of silliness was, well, rather silly, and not in a good way.

But that should not spoil your view of the book. I strongly recommend it, if you're interested at all in the science of aging. Also, if you're tempted to take any potential shortcuts to extend your life (am I the only one to see the irony there?), give Spring Chicken a read first, so that you have at least a basic understanding of the potential pitfalls. A lot of previous "know how" about aging has turned out to be patently false, and you probably don't want to ignorantly shorten your life while ostensibly trying to lengthen it.

One other thing to keep in mind: Just because you can extend your life, doesn't mean you should. Consider your health. There are a few "shortcut" drugs that have proven to extend life . . . in exchange for diabetes and other potential killers. It's your call - I'm not going to tell you what to do. But do consider whether you'd rather live a quality life for a little shorter time or live with persistent bad health for a few years longer. Like I said, your call.

I'll carefully pursue some of the options Gifford outlines, but ultimately, the existentialist in me has to agree with this dead man:

You know I'm born to lose
And gambling's made for fools
But that's the way I like it, baby
I don't wanna live forever

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Update: I just found this interesting article on slowing aging. More progress in this field!

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