Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Ageless Generation: How Advances in Biomedicine Will Transform the Global Economy”

bookThe Ageless Generation: How Advances in Biomedicine Will Transform the Global Economy. By Alex Zhavoronkov. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

This is a fascinating book and overall Alex Zhavoronkov is to be commended for putting it together. It is also something of a frustrating book. My initial thoughts on seeing the title was that I would learn about the latest advances in gerontology, especially new and promising interventions that will push back the inevitable aging process that we all experience. If the twentieth century was the century of physics, and I believe it was, the twenty-first century has all the signs of becoming the century of biology. We are learning more about life than at any time in human history and it is transforming everything around us. How this applies to the aging process is critical, so this book’s emphasis on understanding this process is most welcome. Zhavoronkov includes some explanation of what is taking place in laboratories and hospitals around the world present here and I was delighted to see it. I wish it has been more in evidence and more systematically presented.

Zhavoronkov spends the majority of the pages of this book focused on the difficulties at a macro-level of an aging population among the six billion plus humans on this planet. He spends more time than I expected on the problems of social security and health care in the United States and in other industrialized nations than probably should be the case for a biologist whose research depth into these areas is not sufficient to draw all of the conclusions that he does. For instance, he believes we have to pursue efforts at human rejuvenation to extend productive lives and to allow more people to contribute to society for longer. His definition of the problem of mounting pensions and health care payments in retirement is to increase the work life of all humans. I don’t deny that this is one possible solution to the problem, at least a part of it, but does this make sense as THE public policy option of choice when there are many other approaches one might pursue that are more simple and elegant. I’m all in favor of extended life spans; I doubt this alone will solve all the economic disparities we see in modern society.

I was especially intrigued by a statement by Zhavoronkov declares early on: “We will soon be able to slow the aging process itself” (p. 1). Really, no caveats or adjectives qualifying it? I wish I had that much certainty about whether or not the Sun would rise tomorrow! He then discusses some of the recent breakthroughs; blustering that while we will all get older we will extend our productive capacities into our centenary years, in the process ending the problem of burdensome pensions and extravagant health care costs. This will start slowly, he notes, with life expectancies extending first for a decade or two but by the middle of the twenty-first century quite a bit more. The elimination of disease, chronic conditions, and the bugbears of aging such as arthritis, dementia, cardiovascular disease, and cancer all portend a future of happy, healthy, and productive individuals living a Methuselah’s life. As someone getting older, I hope he is right. As a realist, I’m not so sure. I am a type 2 diabetic and while it is presently under control I have been reading for years about a cure that is almost ready for deployment. I am constantly disappointed by these promises. I fear that same will be true here as well.

In the end The Ageless Generation: How Advances in Biomedicine Will Transform the Global Economy is a scintillating book. I recommend one read it for the information it contains, and it contains quite a lot, but I also urge that one read it with a critical mind analyzing its claims.

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