For the 98 percent of Americans who didn't watch, France lost the World Cup to Italy. Although I myself don't follow the sport and couldn't tell England's Beckham from Ireland's baked ham, I had read that France didn't have a chance. Apparently France's captain, Zinedine Zidane, was an ancient man of 34 years. This is what all the sports writers focused on throughout the week during the buildup to the final. Could someone so old compete in and help win the World Cup?
Being a few years north of 34, I had to ask myself, "Wow, is 34 really that old?"
Alas, it is. Athletic prowess peaks in the mid twenties for just about every sport except marathon running and poker. And nothing can bring it back.
Despite what you read ...
It might seem obvious that none of us is getting any younger and that aging is inevitable. Yet with all the anti-aging potions and precepts now flooding the marketplace, a reminder might be warranted: Every book, powder or pill that promises a fountain of youth—skin that doesn't age, organs that keep putting out, an immune system that never weakens, a mind forever sharp—is just plain wrong: misguided, naively optimistic or outright deceptive.
Consider Deepak Chopra's book "Grow Younger, Live Longer: 10 Steps to Reverse Aging," which, along with "Sharks Don't Get Cancer" and "Naked Lunch," is one of the most deceptive book titles of all time. Chopra states clearly that aging is not inevitable, as if this weren't just a matter of semantics but true on some molecular level.
Leonard Hayflick, an anatomy professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and a cult hero to serious scientists in the field of aging, summed up the debate neatly for me a little while ago: "There is no intervention that has been proven to slow, stop or reverse aging. Period."
Aging is not a process that can be reversed, Hayflick said. Aging is an accumulation of damage at the molecular level over the years, an inadvertent byproduct of a fixed program of growth and development. Damage happens. Young bodies goof up as often and randomly as old bodies. A winding protein molecule might fold the wrong way; a section of DNA might not replicate correctly, regardless of whether you are five or 50. When this damage builds up, then you got troubles.
A young body can repair itself more efficiently and keep damage to a minimum. This is because the repair mechanism itself—like eyes, ears or any other part of the body—hasn't had time to be compromised by molecular damage.
We can, through exercise, recuperate loss of vitality and physical capability due to inactivity, but not the kind due to aging.
Walter Bortz of Stanford University Medical School, past president of the American Geriatric Society, says our incorrect concept of aging is better described as disuse. He describes "disuse" as a leg in a cast. The leg shrivels, weakens and looks old, but it didn't really "age." With exercise, the old-looking, old-functioning leg can become vital and active again. But it can't get "younger."
Rate of decline
Bortz said that the minimal damage accumulated at the molecular level resulting in a decline in overall physical ability is only about 0.5 percent per year after about age 30. This assumes that you keep in tip-top shape. (Several studies have shown that this rate matches the decline in performance in professional athletes after their peak.)
This implies that growing unnaturally unhealthy while you age naturally is not inevitable. Following some of Chopra's advice—the stuff that's physically possible, anyway, as opposed to the levitating he has claimed to accomplish—might make you feel healthier, but you will not extend your lifespan.
This isn't just nitpicking. False promises are made, money changes hands, and health is sometimes compromised as a result of this atmosphere of anti-aging proselytizing.
Pharmacies, once content selling hair dyes and wrinkle creams to cover up the signs of aging, are now hawking dietary supplements that purport to boost sex drive and return youthful vigor, some as basic as vitamin E and others as exotic as crushed deer antlers. Web sites push products with names that would make Rambo proud, such as AgeForce Ultra Max 400 and Regenesis Plus Recombinant GH.
Hundreds of "anti-aging' clinics have opened across the United States in the past decade, charging clients upwards of $10,000 a year for anti-aging hormone injections, an unproven and potentially dangerous therapy.
The only positive thing that comes with aging might be wisdom, an accumulation of common sense. But then again, older folks are dropping a lot of cash to stay young. And old Zidane was pretty stupid getting himself kicked out of the World Cup final like that and drawing a free kick.
Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books “Bad Medicine” and “Food At Work.” Got a question about Bad Medicine? Email Wanjek. If it’s really bad, he just might answer it in a future column. Bad Medicine appears each Tuesday on LIveScience.
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Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.