- In the book "Defy Aging", Beth Bennett discusses how genetics and biochemistry are the basic architecture of human life.
- According to Bennett, people can make choices that will affect the genes influencing their aging.
- Bennett discusses cellular pathways identified by new research as contributing to aging and the possibility of intervening to alter the outcome.
Like most people, I’m very interested in various aspects of the inevitable process of aging, so I was really pleased to learn that Beth Bennett’s book called Defy Aging: A Beginner’s Guide to the New Science of Longer Life and Better Health has now been published.1,2
This fact-based book is an easy read and full of gems about what’s happening as we age and what we can do to increase not only our life span but also our health span. Here’s what she had to say about her review of the science and psychology of getting old.
Marc Bekoff: Why did you write Defy Aging?
Beth Bennett: Eventually we all reach a point along life’s trajectory when it becomes impossible to ignore the toll the ticking clock is taking. When I hit that point about five years ago, I started wondering why all this stuff was happening, and wasn’t there something I could do about it. You’re justified in thinking, “Of course you must have known that eventually you would get old and the inevitable consequences would hit you too.”But the reality didn’t hit me until that threshold moment. Then, I started looking around for answers.
MB: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?
BB: At first, I looked for books for the general, educated audience. I found self-help books intended either to encourage one’s acceptance of getting older through mindfulness and other forms of mental health or to introduce gentle exercise promoting improved physical health.
There were also books by science journalists introducing the new science of aging research (called geroscience). Neither of these genres gave me many answers so I started digging into the primary research, in other words, the reports coming directly from scientists, studying these issues and I discovered a trove of work on the cellular and molecular bases of the aging process.
MB: Who is your intended audience?
BB: I figured if I had these questions, a lot of other people did too. So, my intended audience is anyone who is curious about what is going on in their body as they age. Evolution has given us a remarkable, self-maintaining body for our first 30 years or thereabouts, but after that, the clock really starts ticking. It’s never too soon to start thinking about aging and what you can do to minimize its effects, which is what I write about.
MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book and what are some of your major messages?
BB: This trend in aging research didn’t surprise me. I spent 15 years working with the first scientist (Dr. Tom Johnson) to find genes for lifespan. If a gene is involved, that implicates a chain of downstream events. The new field of geroscience has been busy identifying these interactions. What’s really exciting about this research is that if you understand the events in cells that make us age, you might be able to interfere with them.
I love genetics and biochemistry because they are the basic architecture of our lives. You can think of genes, which are sequestered in the cell nucleus, as the software that calls the shots in each of our cells. But the messages from the genes that get sent out to the cell are interpreted and instantiated by a whole slew of different actors. It’s helpful to think of this process as a blueprint, provided by the gene, that can be built into different structures by different architects.
Along the way, the cellular environment that we affect through our diets, exercise habits, supplements, stress patterns, etc., can also impact the interpretation of the genetic blueprint and its final product. The point I’m making here is that we can make choices that will affect the genes that are influencing our aging.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say you have one of the many genes that play a role in cholesterol metabolism. Left to its own devices, if you eat the ‘standard American diet’, get little or no exercise, experience regular job stress, etc., this gene may cause your LDL cholesterol to skyrocket. Clearly, this gene can affect your long-term health. You could change your lifestyle to reduce LDL, or you could take a statin drug. Either of these is environmental changes you can make to impact your genetics.
Scientists are identifying more of the genes that cause age-related events. This is one of the aspects of my book that is unique: I discuss the roles of these genes when they are known. I tie these genetic influences into specific body systems (e.g. skin, muscle, skeleton, etc.) each with characteristic patterns of aging, to illustrate genetic effects. Finally, I go out onto a limb by discussing some of the cellular pathways identified by new research as contributing to aging, and the possibility of intervening to alter the outcome.
Some of these interventions fall into the category of “bio-hacks”. But, one thing on which the research is very clear is that at our current level of understanding, the two best strategies for maximizing healthspan–the portion of our lives during which we are healthy and independent–are diet and exercise. How much and what type – of both foods and exercise – are still controversial, but there are plenty of guidelines. There is also plenty of research showing beneficial effects of some supplements and drugs.
My take-home message, not surprising since I’m a scientist, is to experiment on yourself. We are all genetically unique, so there is no one size fits all solution. We have to be informed consumers of information in this age of mis- and disinformation and can’t rely on our medical providers to be up on the scientific literature. That’s my goal in this book, to provide a sampler of current research, and how to interpret and apply it.
MB: Do you feel optimistic that as people learn more about the aging process they will be more content?
BB: I don’t think that learning about the mechanisms of aging will make everyone happy with it. After all, some of us are glass-is-half-full kind of folks who will always struggle with getting old. I think that defying aging means having an arsenal, which includes knowledge, to empower us to do whatever we can to make aging healthier and easier to accept.
In conversation with Dr. Beth Bennett.
1) Beth Bennett, PhD, is a geneticist, with over 50 publications in peer-reviewed journals and a background in evolutionary genetics and the science of aging. She taught college biology for 30 years at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she currently produces a radio show on science. She blogs on all things relating to aging.
2) The book's description reads: Wrinkles and gray hairs and misplaced keys—the obvious signs of getting older. Surprisingly, all of the miniscule events in our cells and organs that are responsible for aging begin their deterioration in our third decade. This book explains what is going on inside cells and organs that result in the outward appearances of aging. Readers will discover what causes skin to sag, hair to turn gray, blood vessels to stiffen, and other, mostly unwelcome events. Finally, and probably most importantly, the reader will be introduced to what can be done to stop or reverse this process. Beth Bennett provides an easy-to-read introduction to the science of aging: why and how the body deteriorates. She uses real world analogies to explain the chemical and cellular processes taking place in the body, along with newly-discovered solutions emerging from basic research labs. Bennett explores the effects of aging in body systems that are important to all of us as we age: skin, muscle, bone, heart, and brain. In each of these body components, Bennett connects novel, science-based interventions with lifestyle modifications that improve and extend health, as opposed to simply lengthening life.