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


According to Amazon, Bill Gifford has written for magazines such as Outside and Bicycling, as well as a stint writing for the Washington City Paper, a weekly alternative newspaper. This personal and thorough look at the science of and non-scientific practice of prolonging life written by a competent writer is a pleasure. Though the information is as overwhelming as water through a firehose, still, it was fun to listen to and useful as far as I can remember what he said.

The entertainment value was high in some chapters like the one about the determination of Suzanne Somers to take whatever drugs necessary to remain youthful well beyond her years. He remembers his fantasies about her when he was a teenager watching Three's Company and says that she looks pretty amazing now at 68. Among the countless pills she takes, the hormone replacement pills, though different from the one found to have caused breast cancer, are not considered safe. And there are the growth hormones, outlawed for athletes.

Several of the characters he wrote about reminded me of the fictional character in Richard Powers' book Generosity, a geneticist who was sure the disease of aging was about to be eliminated. Aubrey de Gray, a British computer scientist has identified types of aging damage that he believes could be addressed. The scientific community has not been persuaded, though no one has been able to disprove his theories. 

He notes that with the high use of statin drugs which lower LDL, the rate of death from cardiovascular disease has been cut in half since 1960. Statin drugs help those who have the disease, but don't work as primary prevention. One researcher says there is not an overall decline in mortality and he concludes the statins kill in other ways. A study of 136,000 people who had a major coronary event showed half had low LDL; other risk factors for heart disease (high blood pressure, weight, diabetes) are implicated. I recount his description of this in hopes of coming to a greater understanding of the change in dietary recommendations which state that cholesterol in food does not increase the cholesterol in the blood. Other recommendations refer to weight management, low fat food, avoiding saturated fats, and the like.

So, what causes high LDL? What other causes of death increased that made up for lowered cardiovascular disease deaths? Was it really statins that reduced the death rate from cardiovascular disease? 

He gives a short review of a few "things that might work," including resveratrol (don't bother), alcohol (moderate drinkers live longer than those who drink nothing and red wine is your friend), coffee (turns out that the link to cancer was from studies where coffee drinkers were smoking at the same time; a large study reported in NEJM showed that coffee drinkers had lower mortality risk than abstainers, the more coffee, the better), kercumin found in turmeric (another don't bother), metformin, a drug taken by diabetics (one of the most promising–and mysterious–anti-aging drugs out there), Vitamin D (in addition to taking supplements, get some sun a few times a week) and aspirin or ibuprofen (in addition to established heart attack prevention, aspirin is an anti-inflammatory and inflammation is a part of aging and disease.

Bill Gifford, Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (or Die Trying), Grand Central Publishing, 2015, 384 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa library and from Amazon, soon to be available in the public library. 

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