Books and Arts

Nature 464, 491-492 (25 March 2010) | doi:10.1038/464491a; Published online 24 March 2010

Exposing the longevity business

S. Jay Olshansky1

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From caloric restriction to red-grape skins, the anti-ageing industry goes beyond scientific results to market treatments to those who hope to cheat death, cautions S. Jay Olshansky.

BOOK REVIEWEDEternity Soup: Inside the Quest to End Aging

by Greg Critser

Harmony: 2010. 256 pp. $26

Exposing the longevity business

D. MDZINARISHVILI/REUTERS

Claiming to be 129 years old, Antisa Khvichava of Georgia would seem to know the secret of a long life.

The conquest of death has preoccupied the minds of countless scientists, businessmen and charlatans throughout history, and has emptied the pockets of millions who sought immortality. Clearly they didn't succeed in their quest: all those who shared this vision in the past are dead. Yet the search for eternal youth is very much alive.

In Eternity Soup, science writer Greg Critser reminds us that the pursuit of everlasting life has resurfaced, with a cast of characters that are as entertaining, convincing and, in some cases, more dangerous than their predecessors. He also explains how science is inching closer to offering an intervention that slows ageing in people — but it is not there yet.

The book's title refers to a recipe for a long and healthy life that was invented by an Italian nobleman in the sixteenth century. Yet it is still appropriate, as the science and business of life extension are intermingled. For example, Critser describes how his elderly parents, after consulting an anti-ageing practitioner, have come to believe that they will live healthily to age 100 or more. The chances are they will be disappointed, but they derive some comfort from the vision of ageing they purchased.

Critser begins with a discussion of the supposedly life-extending effects of caloric restriction, a reduction in food intake that is thought to prolong life in many species. His account is entertaining but sells the reader short because he fails to question the science behind the claim. Experiments in the early twentieth century demonstrated not the life-extending effects of eating less, but the life-shortening effects of gluttony. Recent studies suggest that caloric restriction does not work in some species and even shortens life in others. Moreover, it has never been demonstrated to make people live longer. Those eating fewer calories might have favourable cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure, but some of the practice's most ardent supporters have died at about the same age as those who did not restrict dietary intake.

This opening section aside, Critser's book is a brilliant exposé of the increasingly popular anti-ageing industry and how its practitioners have misled many people into believing that they can stop or reverse the effects of ageing. Proponents seem to argue: ageing is your fault; we have an unproven cure for sale that no one has disproved; scientists and physicians who disagree with us operate in a failed paradigm; and our patients tell us they feel better, therefore our treatments work.

Critser's methodical portrayal of a host of anti-ageing practitioners reveals some fascinating people who seek to convince others that they can purchase longer and healthier lives like any other commodity. He makes clear that many anti-ageing treatments are based more on faith healing than on science, and that the industry defends them and presents them to the public with evangelical zeal. Scientific gerontologists who point out the lack of empirical evidence behind the claims are shouted down, sued for libel or made fun of as lab technicians or statisticians with no experience in treating patients.

Critser became aware during his research of why the ridiculed scientific gerontologists find the anti-ageing industry so aggravating. The industry closely monitors the field for any advances, and when it spots something that might be turned into a commercial enterprise, the product is repackaged, branded and sold to the public as the next great breakthrough of its own invention. Examples of scientific advances that have ended up as sham treatments or that have been sold prematurely to the public as longevity therapies include various hormone concoctions, resveratrol — found in the skin of red grapes — and bogus DNA tests.

This is an extraordinary time to be a scientist in any of the disciplines associated with ageing because developments are occurring so rapidly. Yet the lure of money can be as distorting here as in the 'faith-based' anti-ageing trade, because it can encourage scientists to interpret their results liberally to tantalize investors. By contrast, it enables research to take place that might not otherwise occur. At a conference I attended recently, one chief executive claimed that his company was on the verge of curing cancer, securing a 100-year life expectancy for all and re-engineering humans so they could run a mile in two minutes. These claims echo those made centuries ago by the inventors of alchemy.

Because ideas are the currency of science, even those taking a fringe approach should be given their due. But as Eternity Soup makes clear, it is important to know when the line is being crossed. By openly engaging in uncontrolled non-scientific experiments on patients, with the rationale that there is no time to wait for science to prove them right, the anti-ageing industry has stepped beyond it.

See Editorial, page 465.

  1. S. Jay Olshansky is a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Illinois 60612, USA, and a research associate at the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago, Illinois 60637, USA.
    Email: sjayo@uic.edu


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  1. #9867
    Date:
    2010-03-25 07:00 PM
    Chris Booker said:

    One has to laugh at the irony of reviewing this book in the same issue as an industry-sponsored supplement on 'aging' appears

    Report this comment

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