In a day and age when women will pay as much as $600 an ounce for anti-aging facial crème, there’s no doubt that the pursuit of youth is big business. In today’s youth-obsessed culture, it seems everyone is looking for ways to look younger, feel younger, and live longer. Ted Anton explores this phenomenon in The Longevity Seekers.
Anton, a professor of English at DePaul University in Chicago, has crafted an engaging, accessible examination of the quest to understand longevity with this, his latest book. (Anton’s previously published titles include Bold Science and Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu). Thoroughly researched and well documented, The Longevity Seekers was more than a decade in the making as Anton traveled far and wide talking with scientists, researchers, venture capitalists, and others as he sought to unravel the “personal, economic, and intellectual motivations shaping discovery in our time.”
The Longevity Seekers examines more than two decades of research into life span and longevity, focusing on studies that explore the genes, enzymes, and proteins that may make us live longer, healthier lives. Anton takes readers on a behind-the-scenes tour of the labs and the scientists in them who study worms, flies, mice, mole rats, primates, and other beings, all of which may point the way to anti-aging pharmaceuticals for humans.
Anton’s exposé unwinds like a fast-paced thriller as he recounts the highly competitive race in which scientists, research labs, and global drug companies are engaged in the search for a magic bullet that could extend human life. Quirky, temperamental scientists butt heads. Wealthy venture capitalists seek to monetize scientific research. Scientific journals rush to publish unsubstantiated findings. Big pharma capitalizes on promising though nascent studies.
In recounting the race to fight aging, Anton reveals that, by 2010, 247 “longevity genes” had been claimed “… just to treat something [aging] most people through most of history considered perfectly normal.” But, he notes, scientists soon discovered that “… a single gene does not create a single protein that produces a single effect.” Finding the antidote to death would take more than isolating a single gene, protein, or enzyme.
The Longevity Seekers offers a fascinating look at the players who have brought the notion of anti-aging to the fore. Anton goes beyond the elements of science and business that have been driving the quest for longevity, also discussing the social, economic, and political implications of a world full of centenarians. And, although he dives deep into the science behind anti-aging—even going so far as to provide scientific shorthand for various genes—The Longevity Seekers remains accessible even for those without PhDs in molecular biology.
Indeed, the book is more than accessible. Engaging and lively, The Longevity Seekers is compelling and revealing. In providing such a thorough examination of the science, business, and politics behind the quest for immortality, Anton also pushes us to examine ourselves, to question why aging is considered a disease when it is, after all, a natural part of life.
Anton does an excellent job of simplifying a complex subject, and he does so with verve. Unfortunately, the book is marred by some sloppy copy editing, which is rather disturbing since the work is published by the house that literally wrote the book on copy editing. In addition, the story of the quest for longevity is slightly derailed when Anton veers into discussions about his parents, his siblings, and himself as they consider whether it’s time to move the folks into an assisted-living facility. These personal asides, although not entirely off topic, seem somewhat misplaced in an objective examination of the science behind the business of youth.
Readers who are looking for a simple how-to guide on how to live longer, more healthful lives won’t find it here. Although that’s not the focus, some tips for extending life do surface: daily exercise, reasonable nutrition, and social engagement. Instead, The Longevity Seekers provides a thoughtful, thought-provoking examination of the quest for immortality and the people, science, business, and politics that shape that quest.
May 2013, University of Chicago Press
$26, 223 pages, hardcover
Learn more about Ted Anton and The Longevity Seekers.
Listen to author Ted Anton discuss the book.
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen