Andrew Steele

Bloomsbury, £20

Review by Neil Mackay

FOR a book about how humanity now stands on the cusp of beating the scourge of ageing, I felt pretty damn old by the time I’d finished this work by Andrew Steele. There are popular science books and then there are science textbooks, and Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old falls down on the textbook side of the divide.

I don’t consider myself a scientific dunce – but for someone without a fair bit of scientific learning under their belt, Ageless can be daunting. This randomly selected passage gives a flavour: “Another place where clonal expansions are common is among the HSCs – the stem cells responsible for making blood cells. The most common driver mutation in HSCs is a gene called DNMT3A.”

The book begins well, telling us how the giant tortoises which Darwin studied on the Galapagos Islands gave the first hint that “negligible senescence” – effectively the act of ageing without showing signs of age – and “biological immortality” were possible. If only we could understand the processes which allow these great creatures to live so long, we could mimic them ourselves, extending our lifespans greatly. Harriet, one Galapagos tortoise collected by Darwin in 1835, finally died in 2006.

Steele uncovers just how close we really are to cracking the curse of old age. We’re within a few generations of being able to slow and arrest the ageing process, prolong lifespans and eradicate a host of biological evils which have haunted humankind throughout our existence. For that alone, Steele deserves plaudits.

There are some incredible revelations in this book. The science is fascinating despite the dry delivery. Laboratory breakthroughs are now being made in genetics and medicine that will presently herald a new biological era. Humanity could soon see average lifespans expand astonishingly – 120-plus might shortly be a not uncommon age to live to, with all your physical and mental faculties crucially intact.

Ageing, we learn, is merely Mother Nature’s sleight of hand. In terms of our lifespans, it doesn’t matter how many years pass, what matters is the degradation of the body caused simply by being alive. Cells wear out, DNA gets ragged, microscopic gunk builds up in the body causing everything from heart attack to Alzheimer’s. If we can work out how to stop this biological collapse, we can delay, even suspend, ageing. The human body really is a machine and we’re currently working out how to repair it indefinitely.

This is the realm of biogerontology – the study of human ageing. What’s astonishing is that scientists have known for decades that life can be prolonged – but with illnesses like polio and smallpox dominating medicine until recently, science has had little time or money to invest in what was seen as the esoteric study of ageless ageing. Now though, as medicine progresses to the point where we can control – if not cure – monstrous diseases like cancer, scientists have the time and funds to explore the last great frontier: taming ageing itself.

We’re looking at the kind of technological breakthroughs that will inevitably inspire a new wave of science fiction. I suspect we’ll see reprised versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray or She – both stories about the gift and curse of immortality – as these discoveries seep into the public imagination.

What Steele says is both revolutionary and important – life-changing in the true sense of the word. His thinking is bold, visionary, utopian: “Every day we bring forward a cure for ageing, we save 100,000 lives. We know it’s scientifically possible. It’s now up to all of us to meet the defining humanitarian challenge of our time.”

Some ageing experiments have been macabre, like splicing two living rats together – one young, one old, to discover if youthful tissue can delay the ageing process in older animals. In short, the answer is: it can – giving rise to a whole new concept when it comes to vampirism.

I wanted more of this. I wanted to know the lives of the crazy geniuses who are about to change human existence – their motives, their inspirations, their challenges and struggles. I also wanted to know more about the social impact of these new scientific breakthroughs that are coming our way. Steele poses some questions early on about what super-extended life spans would mean when it comes to population, employment, pay, pensions and climate change – but quickly leaves that behind as we enter textbook territory.

What struck me most about this book, though, was the sense of personal disquiet it gave me. Middle-aged folk like me, and our children, might be the last two generations to really live with the fear of the grotesqueries of growing old. If Steele is right, and we really will soon be able to keep the human body in a state of almost constant good maintenance, both mentally and physically, then my grandchildren may well inherit a world without cancer, stroke, heart attack and dementia; where diabetes and Parkinson’s are beaten; where the simple wear and tear on the human body and brain can be repaired with stem cells, gene therapy and medicines being invented in the lab right now.

These breakthroughs will force humanity to ask huge metaphysical questions about itself, and about the nature and meaning of life. That’s what I wanted from this book.

Great popular science books should work like all the best non-fiction: you follow the writer on a journey into an unknown world populated by fascinating characters. Great non-fiction is full of colour and reportage, sugaring the pill of material that might otherwise seem intimidating. It’s the old Reithian trick of entertaining while educating.

I wanted Ageless to take me into a world I knew nothing about and show me the men and women working in the lab who’ll change the shape of tomorrow – and I wanted Steele to lead me through the moral maze this Brave New World will confront us with as a species. Instead, I felt like I was back at school swotting for my Biology A Level.