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The Quest for Immortality: Science at the Frontiers of Aging Paperback – July 17, 2002

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Editorial Reviews Review

In 1998, scientists discovered an enzyme, telomerase, that had the astonishing ability to "immortalize" certain kinds of cells that normally died within a short time. When that discovery was announced to the public, the press put an almost inevitable spin on it: aging was about to become an artifact of the past. Never mind that the scientists in question never claimed that telomerase had anything to do with the lifespan of humans: the discovery became a story because it appealed to our ancient interest in cheating death and living forever. A huge, lucrative industry now caters to that interest, offering the public pills, potions, and powders that are meant to reverse and undo the effects of aging.

Such fixes do not, will not, and cannot work, write scientists Jay Olshansky and Bruce Carnes in this book-length argument against the claims of "prolongevists," those who believe that the fountain of youth is just around the corner. "Short of medical interventions that manufacture survival time," the authors argue, "there is very little you can do as an individual to extend the latent potential for longevity that was present at your conception." In the aggregate, they continue, we have already passed the far limits of our life expectancy, as is evident by the fact that many of the diseases that plague us today, such as certain cancers and neuromuscular disorders, are the expression of genes that have long been with us but were not often manifest, because humans did not live long enough for them to become a problem.

Adding still more years will do nothing to improve the quality of life, Olshansky and Carnes suggest. The better approach is to guard our health during the years that are ours--and to regard all claims to immortality and life extension, no matter how attractive, with a skeptical eye. --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

As the baby boomers age, the number of books on the aging process seems to increase exponentially. Similarly, the range of elixirs, potions, herbs, specialty diets and hormones being marketed as ways to halt or reverse the aging process has been growing apace. Olshansky, a senior research scientist at the University of Chicago, and Carnes, an expert on aging, insert their voices into the mix, refuting many of the claims of purveyors of these products, reminding readers that "we should all be wary of those who distort legitimate science and use pseudoscience or no science in order to create and market false promises and exaggerated claims about health and longevity." They begin with a brief but far-reaching history of the human preoccupation with the Fountain of Youth, going all the way back to Babylonian and Greek myth and describing alchemical pursuits during the Renaissance. They then present an overview of current scientific study of the aging process, covering such topics as the evolutionary reasons for aging, cellular changes associated with the process and the physiological alterations inextricably linked to it. The authors address advances in medicine and public health that have led to dramatic increases in the human lifespan in developed countries over the past century, and that may yield genetic therapies intended to even further enhance longevity. Unfortunately, the authors seem to give secondary priority to the writing: there are distracting repetitions and awkward transitions between the singular and plural first person. But they argue persuasively that, taking whole populations into account, overall lifespan is unlikely to increase significantly, and that the most productive means for improving quality, and perhaps length, of life are mundane diet monitoring and consistent physical activity. (Jan.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Science at the Frontiers of Aging
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (July 17, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393323277
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393323276
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #361,189 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 27, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Dr. Andrew Weil provides an endorsement on the back cover saying "This is by far the best book I've read on the science of aging." I wonder why. It is definitely NOT the best book I've read on the science of aging. Better are: Austad, Steven N. Why We Age: What Science Is Discovering about the Body's Journey Through Life. (1997); Clark, William R. A Means to an End: The Biological Basis of Aging and Death (1999); and Hayflick, Leonard. How and Why We Age (1994)--see my reviews at All three of these books explain aging and the evolutionary necessity for death better than Olshansky and Carnes.
I think what Andrew Weil liked about this book is the authors' endorsement of alternative medicine and their mention of Dr. Weil as "a leading proponent of this approach...emphasizing the importance of the natural healing and protective powers of the body in a way that is identical to that of evolutionary medicine." (pp. 146-147) It should be understood that while the authors endorse the principles of evolutionary medicine they do not endorse the use of many popular food supplements as a means of gaining longevity, including some advocated by Dr. Weil. Of course, Weil advocates their use for "optimum health" not as a means to anything like immortality. See his engaging best-seller, Eating Well for Optimum Health: The Essential Guide to Food, Diet, and Nutrition (2000).
What this book has going for it is a clear statement of the demographic facts about aging and death, and some good arguments explaining why the facts are as they are and not as we would like them to be. In particular, we are warned about the "Prolongevists" who make unsubstantiated claims about the possibility of living very long lives or of attaining immortality.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Frank on January 27, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I picked up a copy of The Quest for Immortality: Science at the Frontiers of Aging after watching Dr. Olshansky discuss his book and issues associated with human aging on Orange County Television in early January. Having been intrigued by the changes I've seen in my own body through the decades, I found Olshansky's perspective on aging to be fascinating and refreshingly honest. With a copy of his book in hand..., I flipped it over to find endorsements from what I have since discovered is a powerful set of authorities on aging. I was most surprised to find a glowing endorsement from Dr. Andrew Weil, who suggested that this was the best book on the science of aging that he had ever read. Over the years I have come to admire, respect and trust Dr. Weil, and now having read the book he so heartily endorsed, I can see why Dr. Weil and this authoritative group would provide such laudatory comments. What these authors did was, perhaps for the first time that I've seen, provide the general public with a scientifically accurate view of human aging that is easily digestible by everyone. None of the hype; no lies about how we can all stop or reverse aging or achieve an Ageless Body and Timeless Mind as suggested by Deepak Chopra (I've read all of his books); none of the exaggeration or lies about stopping or reversing aging by eating vitamins or antioxidants; and none of the hoopla like that coming from the world of anti-aging medicine where they would have you believe that aging can be reversed with the use of hormones or mind control. Olshansky and Carnes use the first chapter to take the reader on what I found to be a fascinating journey through the history of thought on aging and death.Read more ›
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28 of 35 people found the following review helpful By David H. Stebbing on August 4, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This is an extremely disappointing book. It is superficial, repetitive, padded, sometimes illogical, and could be boiled down to a magazine article with no loss of content. The main point is pretty simple. Now that we have mostly conquered infectious disease in rich countries, what kills us is accumulated genetic damage, and there is no magic potion to treat it. Vitamins, herbs, dietary supplement, etc. are a waste of money. Basically, the authors wrote this book to warn against exaggerated claims about products purporting to prolong life. I have no quarrel with this point, only with the black and white nature of their thinking.
What I was hoping to find, and didn't, was practical advice, based on current scientific knowledge, on what I (or anyone) could do to live longer and healthier. What about diet? Avoiding toxins in the environment? Reducing stress? The authors mention that a healthy life style can add about 900 days to the average life span. Explain that to me in detail and I'll be delighted. But they don't explain it, and what little advice they offer contains nothing new.
The authors are research scientists interested in the possibilities of genetic engineering to further extend the human life span. They strictly believe in science and the medical model. They provide some information on why our genetic inheritance limits the human life span and where breakthroughs in genetic engineering might soon occur. Their science is quite watered down, however, below the level of Scientific American. They often refer to ethical considerations, but take no stand.
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