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A Look At Anti-Aging Tactics In 'Eternity Soup'

GUY RAZ, host:

Dr. Forgacs was one of the people profiled in the new book called "Eternity Soup: Inside the Quest to End Aging," which sounds impossible, but writer Greg Critser found dozens of doctors and scientists who believe it's possible to dramatically increase the normal human lifespan well beyond the age of 100. Greg Critser joins me from member station KPCC in Pasadena, California. Welcome to the program.

Mr. GREG CRITSER (Author, "Eternity Soup: Inside the Quest to End Aging"): Thank you.

RAZ: I was struck by something your mother said to you, and you write about this in the introduction to the book. She said, quote, aging, when you think about it, it's so unnatural. Can you help me understand that thinking?

Mr. CRITSER: Yeah, I think once you're about 85, you start thinking that. I think that a lot of that comes from what was once considered something that was fixed and, you know, really immutable, that is to say human life expectancy and maximum lifespan. The science behind that has radically been overturned in the last 20 years.

RAZ: Yeah, but how is aging not considered immutable? I mean, people age.

Mr. CRITSER: What we've seen in laboratory animals in the last 20 years and in observations in nature is that, indeed, that is not the case, that you can extend maximum lifespan in laboratory animals. And when you look in nature, you find several examples of what they call negligible senescence.

So a fish, the Pacific rock fish, will live 150, 160 years, way beyond what it should live given its weight. It only dies really because of predation or infection.

RAZ: Now, you spent about three years going around the country, talking to doctors and scientists involved in this research, and you visited a group called the Caloric Restriction Society. These people you talked to are reducing their caloric intake by 30 to 40 percent.

Mr. CRITSER: Yeah, which is you know, is to me radical, being fond of pizza, as I am. And so, a guy who normally eats, let's say 2,500 calories, will eat 1,750 calories, and that's a big, big drop, believe me, because I usually eat 2,500 calories.

So what that does you know, the prevailing theory is that somehow this constant form of voluntarily stress through voluntary restriction triggers the body into kind of ancient starvation pathways in which it stops putting your caloric energy into reproduction and growth and instead channels it into bodily maintenance and repair, which is exactly what your body needs as it gets older and starts to wear down.

RAZ: What's a typical meal for a member of the Caloric Restriction Society?

Mr. CRITSER: Brief.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRITSER: You know, they would tend to be very optimal nutritions. So they will eat things like sardines, which are very high in Omega-3 fatty acids and protein. They will eat a lot of soups, which are high in nutrients but low in calories. They will eat a lot of vegetables, fruits and vegetables, but not almost nothing that's fried, which really discouraged me from doing it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRITSER: And we know, you know, I mean, it's fairly easy to concoct a, you know, a high-nutrient meal now.

RAZ: I was interested to learn about human growth hormone as part of the sort of the anti-aging industry. Normally, you hear about it, you know, being used illegally by ballplayers getting you know, get busted for using it. What is HGH supposed to do for people who are looking to slow down the aging process?

Mr. CRITSER: Human growth hormone, which has been approved for use in children with so-called growth deficits for over 25 years, came to the attention of people in gerontology and geriatrics in the early 1990s, when it was shown that about 20 patients, elderly patients in good health, responded to injections by increased thickness of their skin, increased energy, better cognition, less forgetfulness, increased muscle mass, decreased fat mass.

And so, the guy who wrote this up was a very legitimate researcher. He happened to say: this parallels the reduction of about 20 years of chronological time in these patients. And that is really where the entire industry took off because you had really at the same time - this is really important, a whole generation of doctors who wanted to get out of traditional medicine, dealing with insurance companies, HMOs, and get into an all-cash business.

Anti-aging medicine, I think more than if you just go look at it purely as an industry, I would say that's really what it's about. It's a way that physicians who are tired of the old system sort of were able to reinvent themselves and repackage themselves.

RAZ: What do you estimate the industry is worth now?

Mr. CRITSER: Well, they say $50 billion, but you know, they cluster that with a whole bunch of other things. I mean, if you go to one of their Association of American Anti-Aging Medicine, or A4M, which holds their annual conference instructively at The Venetian Hotel in Los Angeles, you go out on the floor, and it's, you know, incredibly entertaining because there's everything from devices that are supposed to correct your relationship to gravity as if we needed it corrected.

You see, you know, something that was popular in the early 20th century, which is glandular extracts, grinding up various glands of various animals, putting them in a capsule and telling people, you know, if you have pancreatic problems, here's extract of sheep pancreas, take this.

RAZ: Aside from the obvious ethical questions all of this opens up, how does society let's talk about American society deal with such a huge number of senior citizens? I mean, it's estimated that by the middle of this century, there will be something like 88 million senior citizens in this country. I mean, how then do you deal with things like Social Security, Medicare, and beyond just taking care of this population?

Mr. CRITSER: Well, this is the explosive part of it. Given these statistics, you can really make the case and I think there's something to it that aging will really turn child against parent, worker against worker, man against woman, and I'll give you three examples.

Child against parent, obviously the resentment about, you know, the burden of Social Security, but also, you know, the burden on the individual child to take care of the parent.

Worker against worker, we know that the percentage of in the working ages between 18 and 64 will decline from 63 percent to about 57 percent, while we'll add eight and a half million workers over the age of 65. So you'll have competition from older workers. So there'll be some friction there.

And the other, I think the most troubling one, is the gender wars, which is, you know, men by age 85, about 60 percent of men will be married, okay, and that's usually because they can get married again because of the obvious gender problems we have in modern society. Fifteen percent of women over age 85 will be married. So that is huge, and so you will be having and another part of it, I think somebody will write an interesting movie about it, is that you'll have older guys very successfully competing with younger guys for fairly young women.

RAZ: Could make for some interesting screenplays. Greg Critser, you have now met a lot of the people behind this anti-aging research. What's your best guess, you know, for how long people will live in the future?

Mr. CRITSER: The gains will be quite modest in the foreseeable future. You know, the most optimistic is that we'll add a year every year between now and 2030 if a reasonable portion of some of the anti-aging interventions in mainstream medicine work. That's an optimistic prediction.

RAZ: That's Greg Critser. He is the author of the new book "Eternity Soup: Inside the Quest to End Aging." He joined me from KPCC in Pasadena, California. Greg Critser, thank you so much.

Mr. CRITSER: Well, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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