People have looked for ways to extend their lives since… well, forever. The oldest known myth on earth, Gilgamesh, is about a Sumerian king embarking on a quest for immortality after his friend’s death. Alchemists were looking for magic death-defying substances, adventurers searched for the legendary Fountain of Youth, and monarchs allegedly took baths filled with young blood (which, by the way, was not that far off from today’s science).
Yet, even as modern medicine developed into something useful and began conquering one disease after another, research into aging dragged its feet. It was intuitively obvious to scientists that aging was so complex a phenomenon that it was a waste of time and energy trying to cure it.
Not until the 1930s, when experiments with caloric restriction in rats resulted in a considerable lifespan extension, did scientists begin to think of aging as something modifiable, and it took us many more decades to get to the current hope-inspiring situation in the longevity field.
Today, the whole world seems to be talking about lifespan and healthspan. We’ve got articles in the mainstream media, political initiatives, and an increasing supply of money for longevity startups.
With public interest comes related books, but here’s the rub: aging is indeed an extremely complicated phenomenon that we still know appallingly little about. How do you write a popular book on a new and rapidly evolving field of science? How do you explain the basics, and when do you stop when an avalanche of new papers keeps flooding your inbox?
A handful of books on the subject have been written. The most widely known (hence, the most impactful) is, of course, David Sinclair’s “Lifespan: Why We Age and Why We Don’t Have To”, which was published in 2019. Alex Zhavoronkov was one of the pioneers with his “The Ageless Generation”, which saw light back in 2013, and let us not forget “Age Later” by Nir Barzilai and “Finding the Fountain” by Breanna Deutsch, both of which were published last year.
The niche of popular science books on aging is hardly saturated, and Andrew Steele’s “Ageless” is definitely one of the best attempts to date. This is remarkable, considering that Steele is a physicist by training who only recently became interested in longevity.
There is a well-trodden path: discuss the historical attitudes towards aging; explain why combating aging is both possible, important, and morally sound; then list several known mechanisms of aging; and end with a review of possible anti-aging solutions that are currently being researched. Instead of deviating from this simple formula, Steele brilliantly implements it.
Steele is not just a scientist but also, according to his website, a writer and campaigner, so it’s not a surprise that the book is well written. What’s more important is that it does not commit any obvious sins against our current body of knowledge.
As a science journalist covering the longevity field for people who are rather biology-savvy, I sometimes find it hard to gauge what accessible writing for laypersons should look like. Yet, I am pretty sure that Steele manages to strike a good, if not perfect, balance here. I think that at times, the average reader of Steele’s book would be left slightly bewildered, but much more often, Steele gives an explanation that is succinct, fun, and engaging.
The first part of the book, where Steele delves into the historical attitudes and moral aspects of aging, sweeps you away immediately. I particularly admired one of Steele’s arguments, which goes like this: imagine living in a world without aging. In such an ageless society, if a disease that fully recapitulated the symptoms and the prevalence of aging emerged, how would people react? Isn’t it obvious that everything would be done to stop the pandemic? Would the inhabitants of this imaginary world listen to the environmental and economic arguments against fighting aging, or would they be outraged by them? “Aging is not a morally acceptable solution to any problem”, Steele concludes, and I couldn’t agree more.
Having dealt away with the usual anti-longevity nonsense, Steele turns to the evolutionary origins of aging and again does a fabulous job. As fitting for a physicist, Steele deftly tackles the widespread misconception that aging is an increase in entropy, which is inevitable according to the second law of thermodynamics; this is only true for closed systems, while an open system can use external energy to maintain itself in working order.
This part of the book gives a lot of food for thought even for a person familiar with the matter. For instance, Steele discusses the importance of extrinsic mortality for the species’ lifespan (if your environment is perilous, evolution tweaks your body so that you live fast and die young – but only after you had a sporting chance to procreate). The level of extrinsic mortality correlates with lifespan better than many other variables such as body size.
Steele goes on to describe evolutionary strategies that promote a longer lifespan, sometimes to the point of negligible senescence – that is, when chances to die remain constant during the animal’s life. Species that have negligible senescence are not immortal (there are still infectious diseases, predators, natural hazards, etc.), but they can be considered ageless. It seems that we might even have discovered cases of reverse senescence, such as in some fish species, where females grow bigger, stronger, more resilient, and more fertile with time (this gave rise to a term I must share: BOFFFF, big, old, fat, fertile, female fish). All this means that the biological mechanisms that enable negligible or even reverse senescence are out there, and we just need to find them.
Yet, in the next part, which is dedicated to the current state of aging research, Steele never creates an impression that we are on a verge of a breakthrough; he never suggests that we should just wait a bit longer and an anti-aging pill will appear. Instead, he is being extremely honest with his readers, never overpromising nor overselling, and he sometimes maybe even errs on the side of caution. For instance, when reading the part about epigenetic clocks, I felt that Steele didn’t do enough justice to the second generation of clocks, such as PhenoAge. On the other hand, his depiction of the field of cellular senescence might be a bit too bright to my taste, but honestly, these are just minor issues I had to come up with to feel that I’m being even-handed.
When discussing the hallmarks of aging, Steele nicely shows the mind-boggling interconnectedness of aging processes. This is yet another example of honesty that might be slightly discouraging but also builds long-term trust.
Probably every book on aging contains the story of the genetically modified nematodes, but Steele paints the complete picture: how the long-lived mutants were flatly outcompeted by their more agile wild-type peers. The full story is both discouraging because it shows the possible downsides of life extension and encouraging because it explains, yet again, why we do not live much longer: not because it is biologically impossible but because this is the trade-off that evolution decided on, something we might be able to change.
The same goes for the recommendations for the reader that Steele ends his book with. He is meticulously honest on what we know about diet and exercise, to the point that it sometimes feels that you just read one caveat too many.
Steele’s boldness shows, among other things, in him not shying away from the debate about extreme life extension, something that many people in our field try to avoid. Yet even those treacherous waters he manages to navigate expertly.
So, is this the ultimate book on longevity? That, I don’t know, but it is a book that you can recommend (and maybe give – after all, the holiday season is almost upon us) to your friends and relatives. The facts and dilemmas from the book would serve as great conversation starters. Maybe, begin your next social interaction with the parable of an ageless world where aging suddenly emerges – and see what happens.
After all, let’s be honest: we need allies. The nascent longevity field has a lot going on but little to show for. We need hope; we need people to believe that the idea itself is feasible. We need to ignite their curiosity, to make them spread the word, donate, call their representatives in parliaments and demand action.
With his book, Steele joins the ranks of our most skillful and charismatic ambassadors. I wish him luck in this righteous crusade.