I learned yesterday of the death of gerontologist Gene Cohen, whom I was lucky to hear at a journalism seminar on longevity two years ago. As I describe in this post, Cohen was a gifted and original evangelist for the creative potential of the aging brain. A psychiatrist, he believed that changes in the frontal lobe as we turn 80 improve our ability to deal with negative emotions and enhance feelings of contentment, empowerment, and creativity. Drawing on new research showing that synapses form in response to mental and environmental stimulation, he invented a number of games to maintain brain fitness, including a revamped version of cribbage. “The magic bullets are all blanks,” he said in 1998, advising people to rely on “intellectual sweating” instead of pills and herbs for good mental health. “Make it a point to learn something new, instead of turning to hormones or ginkgo biloba.”
Compare that approach to the one touted in an email I received the same day. Titled “Assault on Human Aging,” it was a press release for a gathering of “top anti-aging specialists” to “map out a strategy of specific projects to make it possible for humans to live an indefinite life span.” Their arsenal makes ginkgo biloba seem hopelessly quaint: disciplines represented include “biogerontology, cryopreservation, organismal physiology, energetic metabolism, nanotechnology, nanomedicine, nanorobotics, singularity, artificial intelligence, and telomere biology.” The promise: “an all-out assault on the world’s biggest killer – Aging.” Is it just me, or does that border on absurdity?
I’m all for biogerontology; more research into what happens to our cells and organ systems over the years is crucial. Extend our lifespans, definitely. Delay aging, absolutely. But conquer it? No combination of testosterone, terror, and technological wizardry can overthrow the second law of thermodyamics: systems decay over time. The more important objective, as I wrote here, is to improve the quality of the additional 30 years of life newly in our grasp, while coming to terms with our inevitable end.