Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old by Andrew Steele

On page 195 of this book on aging the young scientist author introduces the reader to the term “heterochronic parabiosis”. It’s not an introduction I am ever likely to forget. A certain Transylvanian nobleman would have regarded het pab as possibly a step too far. Even Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the Hungarian aristocrat who was reputed to have bathed in the blood of hundreds of virgins to retain her youth, might have thought the process a little intense.

In its modern incarnation the attempt to discover whether old animals can be rejuvenated by sharing the blood and organs of the young is restricted to animal experimentation. As Andrew Steele, a former researcher at the Francis Crick Institute, explains, “in such studies two animals of differing ages have the skin on one side of their bodies peeled back, and their two exposed flanks are then sewn together”. Their blood vessels then fuse as they heal, and they share a blood supply.

And it works. “Old mice attached to young mice healed as well as a young mouse attached to another young one.” Venerable organs and tissues perked up (and you can stop that thought right there, buddy. He doesn’t go into that). And thus proved that there is, at the least, “a latent capacity, able to be eked out by the rejuvenative power of a younger partner”. The big problem, however, is that it’s not good news for the young mouse, which suffers. A mouse I like to think is called Melania.

Anyway, if you’re getting on and want to try something like this out for yourself without being sewn to anyone, a firm called Ambrosia apparently offers a litre of youthful plasma for $8,000 (two liters for $12,000). To be dripped, not drunk.

Ageism in Aging

That’s the fun part of this book. Because Steele’s objective is not to entertain you, so much as to mobilize you. His big thought — and it is a very big thought — is that what we call aging and see as inevitable is in fact just disease and can be prevented. Indeed, toward the end he complains that while the US National Cancer Institute had a $6.4 billion budget in 2020 the National Institute on Ageing received only $2.6 billion. So “ageing causes 85 per cent of deaths in the US but receives 6 per cent of the health research funding — substantially less than research into the diseases ageing causes”.

Steele sees our attitudes towards aging as fatalistic and fundamentally mistaken. We think the tottering old — like the poor — are always with us. That’s the natural way of things. We must eventually become sans eyes, sans teeth, sans undisturbed nights, sans everything. During the pandemic there has been an active anti-lockdown movement which pretty much openly suggests that old people dying a little early is no great disaster. Steele could not disagree more.

To him aging is a combination of conditions that can be dealt with and scientific advance proves it. “We now know,” he asserts, “that we don’t all have some ticking, internal clock, programmed to kill parents to make way for their children … Instead ageing is an evolutionary oversight: a result of mutations accumulated which worsen fitness in old age.” Stop those mutations and healthy longevity beckons.

What Steele more or less assumes is that such a future is desirable — after all, he says, who would invent aging if we didn’t already have it? So don’t expect a philosophical debate about the nature of humanity or a demographic chapter on the population effects. And don’t expect an easy read. For a manifesto it’s tough going for the layperson. It’s not really the casual reader he wants to convince.

“Ageing is an evolutionary oversight: a result of mutations accumulated which worsen fitness in old age.” Stop those mutations and healthy longevity beckons.

Besides, if you’re my age, by the time you’ve finished the 40-page chapter entitled Why We Age, you may not want to carry on. This contains the physiology of falling apart — our DNA strands fraying at the edges, our proteins misfolding to create plaques that cause dementia, our arteries stiffening, our immune systems weakening, vicious cycles of failing cells sending out signals, which cause other cells to fail and send out signals, like a malign lighting of beacons. By the time I finished all this I was convinced that my body simply hates me. “Half of people aged 65 have two or more long-term conditions,” Steele informs us. “The average 80 year old suffers from around five different diseases.” We carry hods full of medication.

The rest of the book is a message of hope. Not for me and my generation. It’s far too late for that. But for people of Steele’s age — he is in his mid-thirties — it is far more upbeat. His logic runs like this, in summary: first, as we’ve seen, aging is physically horrible. Second, what we call aging can be stopped, but it will take a massive long-term scientific, medical and public health effort. This will take a long time to bear fruit. Third, that fortunately there are various interim “repairs” that could be effected to our cellular physiologies, but we’re not quite there with any of them. But fourth, in the meantime to tide you over and help get you to the edge of Shangri-la, don’t smoke, drink, eat too much, but do take exercise. Who knew? Except all our GPs forever.

If you have a slightly scientific bent, or you’re prepared to work at it, there is a ton of fascinating stuff in here, mostly about microbiology. The exploration of adventures with telomerase — an enzyme that can strengthen the ends of your DNA strands — is fascinating, although disappointing when Steele explains that so far the main consequence is to encourage cancer growth. What’s sauce for the good cell goose turns out to be sauce for the carcinogenic gander.

I might also be prepared to give Metformin a go. Donald Trump probably already has. It’s a drug used for diabetes and a trial is going on to establish whether its sugar-eating properties help to mimic the health benefits of periodic fasting. With the result, essentially, of reducing inflammation and improving cell performance. And it doesn’t seem to do much harm. Although beware, your reviewer is no medical researcher, and my opinion is worth very little here.

What you are left with at the end of this book is the conviction that the author is convinced of his case, and that if he were halfway right his concluding thought that “it’s time for a mission-driven medical moonshot — a massively funded international programme of research to intervene in the ageing process” has a lot to recommend it. What a shame it’s almost certainly come too late for you and me. By the way, how is your arthritis?

David Aaronovitch is the author of several books, including, most recently, Party Animals: A Memoir