How and Why We Age by Leonard Hayflick, PhD, Ballantine Books, New York, 1994, 342 pages.

Reversing Human Aging by Michael Fossel, PhD, MD, William Morrow and Company, New York, 1996, 255 pages.

Dr. Hayflick, Professor of Anatomy at UCSF and former professor of Microbiology at Stanford, was the keynote speaker at this year’s conference of the American Medical Writer’s Association. His book, How and Why We Age, which is written "for the intelligent reader of any age who is curious about biogerontology, the biology of aging," is the first comprehensive, unbiased account of its kind to document what is presently known in this field. He distinguishes the biological aspects of aging - normal, genetically programmed phenomena - from the medical aspects - abnormalities such as diseases or illnesses which may occur as normal age increases the body’s vulnerability. In the course of his book, he details the growing body of research, which he believes scientists have an obligation to make known, and clearly understandable, to the public.

Hayflick writes for the lay reader and believes that the study of aging, until recently considered an uninteresting scientific backwater, is one of the last major biological frontiers. It has, only lately, been elevated from the domain of quacks and merchandisers to the level of a respected science. He feels many scientists have been afflicted with a type of bigotry he calls "ageism" - a bias against aging and the elderly. But with the graying of the American population this attitude is gradually changing. More money than ever before is being spent on aging research, and biotech companies, such as Geron are being created for the express purpose of exploring the fundamental aging processes. Hayflick saw a need to offer the public an accessible, unbiased overview of our current knowledge about this vast and growing subject. His book serves as an excellent primer on aging for adolescent and adult alike, and should be recommended reading for everyone prior to their parents’ 65 birthdays.

Michael Fossel’s book, Reversing Human Aging, reads like captivating science fiction after Hayflick’s scholarly treatment of biogerontology. The very title of Fossel’s book raises skeptical hackles as one opens it and prepares to read, but the author is quick to disclose that his work is intended to be an exploration of the possibilities implicit in the findings of modern aging research, and is therefore a presentation of his opinion alone.

Fossel feels that the ability to foresee, however "dimly and erroneously", may guide the human race to make more humane choices, "finding grace and enlightenment where we might otherwise have fallen into darker paths."

With this cautionary introduction, as well as a tribute to Leonard Hayflick, for "finding the truth and telling others", Fossel launches into an engaging and absorbing description of the state of the art in the biology of aging. He details many of the mechanisms described in Hayflick’s work, and includes some excellent graphics illustrating processes of cellular physiology.

Then after laying the theoretical groundwork, he takes a leap into science fiction, and speculates about what we might expect if we could turn back the cellular clock, probably with the use of telomerase (an enzyme which repairs DNA strands that have undergone normal age related shortening) or telomerase inhibitors. He suggests that the first diseases we will try to treat with these therapies will be progeria, vessel disease, and cancer. Then he looks ahead to the possibility of widespread, low cost telomerase therapy to arrest or reverse the aging process.

Fossel’s last chapter is a guide through some of the social, political, psychological and ethical considerations that accompany the issues surrounding the deliberate systematic lengthening of the average human life span. It has a bit of the feel of Toffler’s Future Shock and is clearly intended to provoke thoughtful reflection about the obligations that will go hand in hand with the pleasures of a longer healthier life. Hayflick cautions that as Social Security, entitlements, and education came under the cutting knife or at least the freezing knife, it may be entirely reasonable, certainly not heretical, that research should come under the same blade. If social security retirement was set at age 65, when the average life expectancy was 45-55, shouldn’t that now be advanced to beyond our current life expectancy of 75?

"Were we to cure all disease and enable you to live forever, it would not make you one whit nobler than you are now. That will not happen unless you make it so." Fossel’s book is a fascinating, often speculative account, but masterfully written and well grounded in current research. It is definitely worth the time it takes to read it, and will undoubtedly join Hayflick’s book on your list of recommended reading for family, friends and patients alike.