Book review: ‘Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (Or Die Trying),’ by Bill Gifford
Special to the Daily
There are certain universal truths — facets of the human condition that are inescapable and inevitable. Love, loss, hunger and thirst, for starters, become woven into our lives from the moment we take our first breaths, and just when we begin to figure out how to deal with those challenges, we realize time has simply zipped along and we are looking down the barrel of life’s gun toward old age and the inevitable head-on collision with death.
Growing old is no laughing matter for most people, but thanks to Bill Gifford’s new book, “Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (Or Die Trying),” we may just be able to squeeze out a chuckle or two. Gifford, a journalist comfortable writing for periodicals on lifestyles and health, proves he has the chops to tackle a more in-depth look at the complexities surrounding the one topic that obsesses most Americans at some point in their lives — getting old — or, more aptly, the ubiquitous quest for that panacea of the modern world: how to grow old without aging. Gifford calls this the “healthspan” versus the “lifespan.”
Cheating death, or at least postponing the inevitable, has been a goal of both the insecure and the health-conscious throughout the centuries, and “sure-fire,” “medically-proven” methods have come and gone, having been debunked, disproven and added to the growing pile of snake-oil cures and medical missteps.
Gifford leaps deftly into the fray, sifting through both the nonsense and the sensible, all while learning some things about his own aging body along the way. Written with great self-deprecating humor and a no-holds-barred approach, the writing style is reminiscent of Bill Bryson and Mark Twain. Gifford’s analysis takes into account the fact that the concept of old age has changed over the millennia, with life expectancy expanding, meaning more old people are alive now than ever before. Unfortunately, with longer lives has come the increased need for a daily medication of some sort, and heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease are acting as the inevitable escorts down the last stretch to the pearly gates.
Gifford explores the many ways — some legitimate medical methods, others ludicrous practices — that often do more harm than good when it comes to trying to delay the process of aging. He gamely puts himself through a myriad of tests that are a part of a decades-long aging study (commenced in 1958) that was a novel approach to studying the changes humans undergo from young, healthy bodies to wrinkled and infirm ones. Unlike studies that had come before it, the concept was to watch the changes that occurred in individuals not yet burdened with the ill effects of the passage of time, making the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging like the movie of “Boyhood” played out in the research lab, with the principle being that aging lurks in the body from the earliest moments of life, and certain factors and decisions made in youth can impact longevity.
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After the doctors poked and prodded, measured and assessed, Gifford set out across the country to examine America’s infatuation with anti-aging methods, past and present, all while analyzing his own outlook on the realities of getting old. He leaves no theory unscrutinized, and he finds flaws with many.
For example, some scientists insist that human growth hormone, one of the most controversial anti-aging procedures, actually contributes to the hastening of the aging process. He critiques Suzanne Somers’ famed allegiance to the anti-aging camp, and though he acknowledges that she takes the concept of staying young to new — and quirky — heights, her success speaks volumes about the market eager to turn back the clock.
Gifford delves deeply into the supposed health benefits of fasting, red wine, turmeric, coffee and the lucky balance of that special dietary “something” better known as the French Paradox. He explores the many theories surrounding the changing roles of — among other things — the immune system, the thymus and the blood itself of younger and older individuals.
Deeply researched, but also deeply entertaining, this very readable book is packed with analysis and insight, and Gifford makes an obvious truth very evident. A key to counteracting aging is, bottom line, to get up and move and live a life of purpose and value.
The book’s take-away seems to be that common sense, unsurprisingly, is the best starting place. Like a new car that begins its inevitable decline as soon as it is driven off the lot, the human body begins its unpreventable march toward death from the first day of life.
The key is to undergo that march stepping smartly, with chin held high, smiling often and eating moderately.
Oh, and good genes don’t hurt.
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