Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Book Review: 'Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (or Die Trying)' by Bill Gifford

Review by David Wineberg

What we don’t know could fill a book

Ever since Man developed awareness, he has been obsessed with longevity. It was responsible for the rise of religions all over the world, which promised to answer the universal complaint “Is that all there is?” Today, we have a growing number of theories, processes and products that claim to extend health if not life. Bill Gifford has taken on the quest of collecting them and putting them under the microscope. 

What he finds is nothing definitive. For every patent medicine, anti-aging theory, superfood or supplement, there is a glaring lack of proof, reproducibility, or scientific basis. The current obsession with antioxidants is typical. In laboratory tests, antioxidants actually shorten the lives of animals. Free radicals may be destructive, but they are absolutely necessary to a healthy body. Oxidative stress actually spurs the body to respond and keep it vibrant. Eliminating all oxidative stress and filling up on antioxidants is a recipe for early death. Human growth factor injections are also demonstrably life shorteners. Testosterone injections, dog and bull testosterone are not the key to a longer, healthier life. They are instead the patent medicines of the 21st century, shilled by purveyors who claim to be living proof of their efficacy, just like the carnival barkers who preceded them. Unfortunately, no one and nothing else responds to them as advertised. The current rage is young blood. The thinking is that injecting blood from the young rejuvenates old brains and old muscles. Isolating and manufacturing whatever molecule is responsible is the new holy grail.

At bottom, we don’t know how the various components of our systems interact or even what their roles are. We extrapolate and assume, and it amounts to nothing, or worse. Gifford travelled far and wide to track down the patent medicine sellers, the scientists and the practitioners making the claims. And since there are so many public proponents touting their wares, he never ran up against the usual corporate wall of silence. Everyone was delighted to talk. What he did run up against was lack of replicable results.

Repeatedly through Spring Chicken, increased healthspan appears as a way to delay the early onset of terminal diseases like diabetes and cancer. A lot of exercise and a vegetarian diet show up in many of the visits Gifford made to the purveyors and the scientists. They are about the only commonalities he finds.

With all the products and processes Gifford describes, just three make any real, measurable difference. Strenuous exercise makes the body respond with beneficial hormones and proteins. (Gifford repeats the mantra “use it or lose it” throughout.) Fasting does the same. It makes the body shift to panic mode, conserving instead of building, protecting instead of growing. Counterintuitively, fasting can help kill cancers, because they suck up all the nutrients we consume, making us gaunt and sickly while they thrive. Starve them, and processes like chemotherapy have a better shot at succeeding. The body, already in panic mode, suffers less. Finally, a (natural) chemical compound called Metformin, normally prescribed for diabetes, has real potential for reduced cardiovascular and cancer risk. Unfortunately, the supplement industry is unregulated, and recently New York State discovered that four out of five (80%!) contained little or even no active ingredients, even from reputable vitamin chain stores and pharmacies. So while you can buy Metformin, there’s no way to know if you’re getting any.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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