It’s our pleasure to present this Q & A with Bill Gifford, the author of the brand-new book Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (or Die Trying). His book is described as “a full-throttle, high-energy ride through the latest research, popular mythology, and ancient wisdom on mankind’s oldest obsession: How can we live longer? And better?” He has been busy talking about his book with NPR, Dr. Oz, and other outlets. But we were lucky enough to get a few minutes of his time. Enjoy the Q & A!
Q: What prompted you to write a book on aging research?
BG: Like everyone else who reaches middle age, I hit my 40s and started to feel like I was changing in certain ways. I had less energy and more squishy bits than I did when I was 30, and a visit to the doctor confirmed that I’d put on a bunch of weight and that my LDL cholesterol was sky high. So I started thinking about aging, and wondering what science really knows about this process that affects everything that has ever lived. It seemed sort of unfair that nature would craft us into the extraordinary beings that we are, only to let it all fall apart in the space of a few decades.
Q: You cover all the bases in the book, but what did you find was the most interesting part of your research?
BG: I was kind of hoping to find some sort of magic cure in the works, and certainly there was no shortage of outrageous claims by anti-aging hucksters, going back through the centuries. As a writer, I was interested in the story of how humankind, and scientists in particular, have tried to come to understand aging—the way our ideas about aging have evolved—and the often colorful characters who have been at the forefront, and sometimes the fringes, of science. It’s very much a work in progress, so it’s hard to pick the most interesting area, but I do think that the parabiosis work that was pioneered by Clive McCay and Frederic Ludwig decades ago, and revived by Tom Rando and Tony Wyss-Coray at Stanford in the last decade, has produced some really interesting discoveries that could help us understand why young organisms are so much different from older ones.
Q: The themes in your book echo the same things we have been saying about the challenges being raised by the aging of the U.S. population. Why do you think more people haven’t become more tuned in to this issue?
BG: I think for our own sanity and survival, many of us tend to “tune out” thoughts about aging. I think it’s a defense mechanism that we’ve developed, over millennia, and it’s embedded in our culture. I was at a friend’s memorial service recently, and there was a lot of talk about the Biblical story of Lazarus, who was raised from the dead. Death has always haunted the human species, and stories like that are meant to reassure us that death is not always the end. The difference is that, in those days, death was generally caused by infectious disease or accidents, and now most of us will likely die from a disease of aging. We’d rather not confront that fact head-on. Which is too bad, because one of the things I found in my research was that people who pay attention to their health status, particularly in middle age, seem to have a much better chance at living to a vibrant, fulfilling old age.
Q: Has writing this book changed your perception of aging research in any way?
BG: I began my research for Spring Chicken thinking that I would merely be taking a dip into some pretty obscure (though interesting) science. But I came away convinced that aging research may give the best bang for the buck, in terms of funding for the health sciences. Aging is the primary risk factor for all these diseases, so it’s vitally important for us to try and learn more about it. If we can delay aging, or aspects of aging, we could relieve the suffering of millions of people around the world.
Q: What do you hope this book will accomplish?
BG: It would be great if they came away inspired to try to take charge of their own health, by paying attention to what they eat, and above all making exercise a part of every day. Exercise is really the most potent anti-aging medicine that we know about. But beyond that, I’d also like them to become more informed consumers of health news. We’re bombarded by stories that are often contradictory and sometimes flat wrong, and it’s hard to make sense of it all. Early on, I took a graduate course in the biology of aging from Nir Barzilai and Ana Maria Cuervo at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and at the end of it, Nir said to me, “Now, nobody will be able to fool you.” When people read my book, I hope, nobody will be able to fool them, either.
Follow Gifford on Twitter here.