Ending the old myths

November 9, 2007

Books about ageing are coming thick and fast as the implications of an ageing population become evident. Many are for academics, while others aim for a popular audience. This book attempts to reach both.

The publishers claim that the author "dispels ignorance by explaining in non-technical language the reasons for ageing and the myth of excessive prolongations of life. He writes in an engaging style ... appealing to the general public and scientists alike". The book comes with tributes from an impressive range of famous names including one Nobel laureate.

This work is clearly divided into two. Apart from the first chapter, which deals with longevity and contains a lot of useful demographic information, chapters two to nine are primarily biological. The attractively titled chapters, ranging from "maintenance of the body" to "myths of life extension", cover the key biological facts and issues that one would expect in a biology book, helped by a glossary of terms.

The core of Robin Holliday's argument is that, until recently, ageing remained something of a biological mystery. He argues that ageing is no longer an unsolved problem.

He starts by dismissing the myth that longevity will be much extended. He then presents a fascinating discussion about different parts of the body, describing both renewable and non-renewable structures. This is followed by a discussion of the importance of maintenance by various mechanisms such as DNA repair, the immune system and wound healing. Ageing is seen as having multiple causes that have a knock-on effect. Other chapters deal with ageing in different kinds of mammals, the importance of genes and the evolution of human longevity.

Holliday claims that there are many myths around ageing, and that for some it is still regarded as an illness that can be cured. For others, especially the gullible public, he summarises and dismisses the various quests for immortality, including freezing dead bodies and various "life- extension" products such as so-called health foods. A basic problem, he says, is the belief that life extension will be possible in the future. This puts its faith in rejuvenation, regeneration and stem-cell technology.

The rest of the book consists of a stimulating discussion about the implications of an ageing population. Particularly interesting is the one on the "doctor's dilemma", which contains a salutary quotation from 1942.

In this, a geriatrician, Edward Stieglitz, describes not only the well- known problems of ageing but also claims that for older people "many are well and capable of continued productive and creative effort if given opportunity to work within their capacities". As the author says, this is even more relevant and true today.

The conclusion of the book is that one of the main causes of ageing is the inability to replace cells in such vital organs as the heart and the brain. Holliday argues that we need to know a lot more about the reasons for the eventual failure of the maintenance of non-replaceable parts of the body.

He also argues that we would do best to accept the fact of mortality and make the most of the time we enjoy in good health. He concludes that society needs to accept the reality of death and to concentrate on other things, such as the transmission of knowledge and experience to the next generation.

Would I recommend this book to students? Yes, although much of it is not as new as the publishers would suggest. Would I recommend it to a layperson? Again, yes. However, it is neither purely an academic book nor simply a book for those with little knowledge of the subject, but it is a good read.

Anthea Tinker is professor of social gerontology, King's College London.

Aging: The Paradox of Life - Why We Age

Author - Robin Holliday
Publisher - Springer
Pages - 134
Price - £24.50
ISBN - 9781402056406

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