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Placebo: how a sugar pill became a poison pill. Part 9 of a contintuing saga...

Read Part 8.

In 1921, amid the early tumult of prohibition, a remarkable study took shape in Palo Alto, California. Stanford psychologist Lewis Madison Terman—as serious-looking a man as one is apt to find, with hi
s specs, upright bearing and unsmiling mien—would one day be remembered mostly for designing and publishing the final accepted version of the Stanford-Binet IQ test.

In '21, however, Terman began work on another project that may have more lasting import for humankind, despite being known today to just a small circle of “longevity wonks.” Terman proposed to track the lives of 1528 American children from that point on. His subjects, encountered in the course of his study of intelligence, were all 10 years old. Terman himself was 44; he would follow them and their families for the rest of his life, and he obtained from his younger associates a pledge to do the same after he was gone. The goal was to note what kind of longevity the 10-year-olds achieved, and try to deduce the reasons why.

Terman recognized that scientists of that era—doctors in particular—associated longevity first with healthcare, then with nutrition and other environmental factors. Given his background, Terman understandably wondered how certain other factors might come into play: If a person is happy, does that bode for greater longevity? What about marriag
e? A stable circle of friends? Religious faith? Job satisfaction?

Although Terman died in 1956, his project went on to enjoy enviable longevity in its own right. Over the ensuing five decades, the Terman Life Cycle Study grew richer and more nuanced, piquing the interest of some of America's foremost psychologists, epidemiologists and gerontologists. Their conclusions about the so-called Terman Cohort challenge many popular beliefs about longevity. For intance, the workaholics in the sample often lived longer than the slackers; neurotic men in particular outlived their more laid-back counterparts. Unhappy individuals logged about as many years as the happy ones—and downright cheerful people could expect to end up on the wrong side of the longevity curve.

The notion that longevity has more to do with who we are than how we take care of ourselves is also legible in new research suggesting that lifespan may all be in the ca
rds—or the genes. A controversial 2010 study reported in Science poses that in lesser species, genes determine variations in longevity both from species to species and within any given species. The study's authors inferred that by fully cracking the genetic code of a species or a representative individual, they could predict longevity with an accuracy of 77 percent.

Despite more objections from the AMA—rooted, one supposes, in the way the study implicitly marginalizes their members' efforts—the National Institute on Aging has agreed to fund this avenue of inquiry going forward. Wouldn't it be something if, among all factors that bode for long life, medicine turns out to be relatively unimportant....

In the meantime, and for all the progress since Hippocrates, human longevity remai
ns a riddle, a moving target full of butterfly effects, unintended consequences and environmental variables that can't always be predicted, accounted for, or separated out. This much we do know: While people in 2011 may be dying of different things than people in 1911—whooping cough then, pancreatic cancer now—a lot of them are dying at the same approximate ages. “Over the past two thousand years there's been a lot of snake oil, a lot of claims made without any real impact on human lifespan,” says San Francisco biochemist Simon Melov, one of America's leading authorities on anti-aging. “Hygiene has changed tremendously, infant mortality has changed tremendously—but intervention in the basic aging process? It hasn't really changed all that much in two millennia.”

None of which stops the Franz Humers and Denton Cooleys (whom we met in earlier installments of this series) from selling their visions of perpetual life through chemistry or surgery. They realize that they make a mockery of the scientific method when they spin their syrupy vignettes about the nursing home Nana who's sitting in front of a cake with 100 candles on it thanks to some pill or procedure. They realize that a few cases here and there do not a trend-line or truism make; that there were plenty of instances of exceptional longevity centuries before CNN was on-hand to cover them. For if CNN had existed back in, say, 1635, surely some ancestral Anderson Cooper would've been camped out at Westminster Abbey to cover the big news that November: the demise of a man who'd attributed his stunning longevity not to regular visits with Elizabethan-era physicians, but to a regimen of “green cheese, onions, coarse bread, buttermilk or mild ale (cider on special occasions) and no smoking.” So said one Thomas Parr, buried at the Abbey by order of England's King Charles I upon Parr's death at age 152.*

To be continued...

* It must be said that some consider the story of "Old Tom Parr" as apocryphal: one of Mankind's earliest urban legends. Nonetheless, there are also respected sources who swear by it. In any case, it makes an anecdotal point that is increasingly borne out by more substantial data. And it was good enough for the whiskey manufacturers who decided to name their aged blend in tribute to him.

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