Cracking the Aging Code
Josh Mitteldorf and Dorian Sagan
Flatiron Books, $26.95
A new book on aging starts with what sounds like a promise: “It is a common belief that aging is inevitable and universal. Nothing could be further from the truth.” From this, you might expect the final pages to offer a list of options for fending off the ravages of time. But this is less a how-to guide and more of a dive into why aging happens.
The authors, theoretical biologist Josh Mitteldorf and writer Dorion Sagan, take an extensive stroll through evolutionary theory and aging research in support of an off-center view. After pointing out problems with several theories of why aging evolved, the authors present the controversial premise that aging is a programmed march toward oblivion that evolved as a form of population control. “Aging in animals enforces a common, predictable life span, helping to prevent the dominance of any one individual or one gene type. Diversity is preserved for the health of the community.” Other researchers have been skeptical of that idea.
Aging, however, is unyielding. The authors describe how certain hardships — starvation, exertion, even small amounts of poison — can paradoxically lead to life extension in lab animals. From these findings, Mitteldorf and Sagan make antiaging recommendations that start with familiar medical advice: exercise, lose weight and take a daily aspirin or ibuprofen. But then they jump to suggestions that have not yet been proven, including supplementation with “huge doses of vitamin D” and melatonin, plus metformin (a diabetes drug) and selegiline (a drug used to treat early Parkinson’s and depression). Next comes a list of herbs that could restore telomeres, the protective tips of chromosomes. The book spends much less real estate describing the research behind all of these recommendations, perhaps because the human studies haven’t been done yet.
The crystal ball section of the book is an optimistic look at very preliminary research on the benefits of lengthening telomeres, removing senescent cells from the body and regrowing the shrinking thymus, the organ that produces immune system T cells. The authors may be onto something. But none of these ideas have yet had a chance to mature.