The So-Called Disease of Aging

Last night I watched a BBC documentary largely focused on the work of eminent biologist Paul Nurse, on current work on gene technology in relation to the process of ageing. He spoke of how cells develop cancer and dementia due to the simple process of age, the cells just accumulate damage which impairs the usual controls on cell replication, hence they fail to work normally. There was a lot of talk on the benefits and dangers of gene therapies, and the morality of using foetal stem cells. Another researcher presented evidence that damage was more an error in specific genes which made some people age with more problems than others. Unfortunately removing this gene risks a lot of good the same gene does, so is dangerous territory, but intriguing.

There was also talk of the dangers of gene therapy, especially in relation to the new technique of Crispr that risks opening the floodgates to a whole lot of new treatments, and raises a lot of moral problems such as the danger of creating designer babies, and even of a new master race based on better genes. 

This is all intriguing stuff but ignores the fact that many of our ancestors lived long healthy lives without these aids. I have reports of – mostly women – living to the age of 160 and being independent right up to the end. There are regions where people are still active in ripe old age. All this wonderful science doesn’t explain this.

Nurse talks of the 3 big killers – cancer, heart disease and dementia, which are all age related, but they also involve modern, urban lifestyles which are increasingly sedentary and unhealthy.

Which takes me to the story of Ernestine Shepherd, featured in the i paper a few weeks ago, as ‘Baltimore’s bodybuilding grandmother’ . You may wish to sit down to read this because her exercise regime is exhausting to read. She wakes at 2.30 am, walks 10 mils then works out at the gym from 7.30 -11.30. She is 80 years old and the Guinness World Records have proclaimed her the world’s oldest competitive female body builder. She had been injured as a child so was exempted from PE at school, but at 56 was encouraged to get fit by her sister. She was inspired by Rocky to get her life together, like Stallone’s hero. She eats 5-6 small, healthy meals each day, with lean meat, vegetables and fruit, and snacks of egg whites. She goes to bed at 10 or 11 and finds this is enough sleep for her.

After her sister died, she became very depressed and had no one to urge her to keep exercising, but to fight this and panic attacks she returned to training. She has been married 60 years and is active in her local church and now travels giving motivational talks and fitness training. She also drinks a lot of water.

Her regime seems terrifying, but there is a lot to be learned from her success. And that’s where modern science fails. They say they don’t treat old age as a disease, yet they are. They ignore peoples’ lifestyles, and the poor diet and stress that comes with poverty and poor living standards. The late Jo Cox highlighted loneliness as a big factor in many peoples’ lives; being engaged with other people helps mental and physical health, so raises longevity.

Science of ageing is fascinating, but quality reflects quantity. It also continues the practice of health care being passive for the recipients. You take a magic pill and you get better. This is nonsense. We all need to be proactive in our own health and healthcare.  If you’re happy and active, you want to live longer. And as Ernestine Shepherd shows, it’s incredible what you can achieve if you really want to. 

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