Living Longer


The Life Extension Revolution, by Saul Kent, New York: William Morrow & Sons, 1980, 465 pp., $12.95.

Saul Kent's book is thoroughly researched and well written, an excellent overview of the field of life extension. It is worth buying for the 750-reference bibliography alone! This book is not for everyone, however. In the introduction, Kent states the three purposes of this book: (1) to provide an objective, comprehensive picture of where we stand today in our efforts to extend human lifespan, (2) to assist the reader in living a better and healthier life, and (3) to provide an effective starting point for action. How well did he meet these objectives?

Of course, in a field as rapidly changing and complex as life extension, no one person knows more than a fraction of the extant knowledge. This book, therefore, is not comprehensive. A great deal of useful theory and data is left out. It is absurd, however, to expect any 20th-century technical book to be all-encompassing. A wide range of subjects have been well chosen for inclusion—from regeneration to cryonics, from evaluating rejuvenation therapies to transplants and artificial organs. It may seem like a book about futurology, but this isn't the future. This is now.

One serious deficiency is the lack of a glossary, even though many technical words—for example, "genome" and "autoantibodies"—are used throughout the text. Because the technical level is so high, this book is not suitable for the average reader. It is written for professionals and well-educated, intelligent laymen (such as those who read Scientific American level material).

Kent's basic position is that we have so far produced little in the way of effective anti-aging technology. In this, I must disagree with him. I think he undervalues increasing average lifespan, which is much easier to do with current technology than increasing maximum lifespan. Since the maximum genetic potential lifespan for man is about 110-120 years (Kent's book tells you why those stories about 150-year-old men didn't pan out), increasing the average lifespan from its present 73 years or so to 110 is about a 40-year increase. While Kent argues that we don't know whether the diseases and symptoms we're learning to control (such as atherosclerosis) are causes or consequences of aging, I think that if physiological and biochemical features can be maintained at a young adult level, we probably are affecting basic aging processes, though not necessarily all of them.

Regarding purposes number two and three, it is important to realize that this is not a how-to-do-it book. While it provides an immense amount of data and a cornucopia of well-chosen references to guide further investigations, practical application information—dosage data, side effects, what responses to look for, etc.—are not provided. It is clearly not the intent of the author to attempt to do so. Therefore, unless you are prepared to do a very large amount of legwork following up items of interest, you will not be able to apply effectively most of the new technologies you read about. On the other hand, if you are serious about life extension, you will find many, many leads in this valuable work.

One significant omission you may notice is a discussion of the negative effects of governmental intervention on the development of life-extension technologies. The Food and Drug Administration, for example, is costing the American public over a billion dollars a year in terms of unnecessary suffering and dying because of unavailable medications. (See Sam Peltzman's Regulation of Pharmaceutical Innovation, American Enterprise Institute, 1974, for an extensive economic analysis of the FDA'S effects on the drug industry.) Nowadays, it takes 8-12 years and $56 million on the average to take a drug from research past the FDA approval gauntlet and then finally to market. Over 90 percent of this cost is attributable to the FDA. Note, too, that US patents expire after 17 years. Only the largest firms can afford to pay the price and only then for drugs that promise to have a large return. It is unfortunate that Kent didn't include anything about this.

If new anti-aging drug therapies are to be made available, the FDA's obstructionism must be eliminated. I would like to see the FDA become a purely advisory agency. It could share half of drug labels and package inserts with the manufacturer. Each could unilaterally say what it wanted, and you and your physician, not a bureaucrat, would be the final arbiters. Best of all would be an "opt-out" form that any adult could sign to receive unapproved drugs; we could give up our FDA "protection" in exchange for taking our own risks when we use non-FDA approved medications.

In an excellent section, Kent tackles the frighteningly popular notion that industrial technology is largely responsible for carcinogens that produce our high cancer rate. He discusses evidence that, on the contrary, the principal factors responsible for causing cancer are "smoking, diet, hormonal imbalances, viruses, immune dysfunction, genetic abnormalities, and aging." He mentions persuasive evidence that food preservatives may have even contributed to the reduction in incidence of stomach cancer in the United States that has occurred since World War II.

In a chapter on rejuvenation therapies for the immune system, I was disappointed to see that nutrients which stimulate the immune system, including Vitamins A, E, C and the minerals zinc and selenium, were not included. The immune system—the body's self-defense forces—declines with age. Many of the conditions that occur with ever-increasing frequency with age, including cancer, atherosclerosis, arthritis, blood clots, and diabetes, can occur only if the immune system becomes defective. These nutrients, among other remedies, actually rejuvenate the immune system so that it doesn't fail to attack the bad guys (like cancer and atherosclerotic cells, bacteria, and viruses) and doesn't make a mistake and attack our own cells (the cause of rheumatoid arthritis, for example).

On the cover of The Life Extension Revolution, it says that this book is "the definitive guide to better health, longer life, and physical immortality." I will agree with this description except for the part about physical immortality. It's a bit early for that! But if you are willing to think in terms of doubling or tripling your lifespan, this book is a good place to start. I highly recommend it.

Durk Pearson, a consultant in wide-ranging scientific and technological fields, has made numerous national TV appearances in the past several years. His book on life extension, coauthored by Sandy Shakocius, will be published by Warner Books in late 1980.