Review: Mittendorf, J. and D. Sagan. CRACKIING THE AGING CODE

Book Review: Mittendorf, J. and D. Sagan. CRACKIING THE AGING CODE: The new science of growing old—and what it means for staying young. Flatiron Books, NY: 2016.

This is a remarkably informative book, written in a readable format. It avoids jargon while explaining clearly the basis of the theories and conclusions the authors have drawn from scientific sources as well as experts in the field. Aging, they say, is a complex process whose evolutionary purposes are to stabilize populations to protect them from extinction.

The dust cover’s description provides a concise summary: “When a population grows too fast, it can put itself at risk of a wholesale wipeout. Aging has evolved to help us adjust our growth in a sustainable fashion as well as prevent ecological crises such as mass starvation, predation, pollution, or infection. While having a fixed life span may be bad for the individual, it has its advantages for humankind; it protects and invigorates communities, making aging an integral part of the survival of our species.”

In Chapters 9 to 11 how to live longer right now is discussed. Much of what is recommended is already standard medicine, they say. Exercise, weight loss, daily aspirin, are basic. These three chapters, however, explain how viewing aging differently, and avoiding the “four ways the body destroys itself” (p.238) can extend life NOW for an additional 10 years. The brief discussions of Telomeres and stem cells and other recent advances are explained in relation to what we can do, ourselves to do that.

There is much “food for thought” in this book. The theory is “aging exists in order to stabilize ecosystems, to level the death rate in good times and bad times.” (p.295) They criticize Adam Smith’s theory of “the invisible hand,” and Darwin’s “survival of the fittest,” as being selfish and therefore ultimately destructive. “Excessive growth leads to extinction of a species, but natural selection is a safeguard to survival.” But, If human intelligence and large-scale cooperation fail, nature will resolve the problem, as it always has. (p.295) That means, we may survive longer if we cooperate.

Humans have sought relief from the fear of death in four ways; An elixir of youth that provides bodily immortality, (2) Life after death—reincarnation, (3) Immortality of the soul—independent of the body (4) a lasting legacy (memorial) of our (own) good ideas and works. We have given up on magic or alchemy and more gradually belief in religion’s promises, though Christianity is still strong and Islam militant. Asian beliefs vary in promise and perspective. But after all the analysis, the authors conclude “There is no escaping death, but perhaps we can escape from fear.” They say, as Bertrand Russell and others have, that “science can never address the fundamental mortality of our physical bodies, infinity is no part of physics, let alone biology.”

This book is more personal than the title might imply. Mittendorf and Sagan cite philosophers on death and their sense that fear of it was irrational. From the 4th Century BC, Epicurus is quoted: “So long as I am, death is not, and when there is death, there will not be me.” But that has not been the way the beliefs of most societies have evolved.
And, said Ludwig Wittgenstein, in the 20th century: “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death….If eternity…is…timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.” That, too, seems to be a metaphor that has not been commonly accepted in Western societies, among scientists, philosophers or the rest of us.

A final comment by the reviewer: The refreshingly matter-of-fact way problems of over-population, starvation, war, disease, pollution, environmental destruction and inequality of opportunity are NOT directly addressed, has been helpful in focusing on aging itself. In a world in which all of these things exist in an environment that is life-threatening for millions, it reminds us that we are primarily responsible for our own welfare and for those in our families and communities. All reform begins with ourselves.

John H. Langer, JD, Ed.D. Retired Federal agency manger, former professor of education, public school administrator, and writer of a number of articles and publications on education, public affairs, substance abuse and social issues. In writing a book on attention and memory as it relates to education, this blog is helping to focus attention n current issues, and hopefully, add something useful as well.

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