No matter how feisty the study participants on their good days, no matter how upbeat their videos on the Einstein project’s website, aging is for most people a dirty business, whether it progresses slowly starting at age 70 or rushes in 30 years later. In a way, it might be worse at the extreme; when you’ve had so many more years of health, its collapse, or the fear of it, may be more painful. For the Kahns, an expectation of family exceptionalism surely took hold, despite Leonore’s “early” death: Each sibling’s apparent invincibility supported the others’. Their longevity came to seem a matter of willpower, not fate. “I admire what Dr. Barzilai—is he really a doctor?—is doing,” says Irving. “To a point. Where we part ways is in trying to match up one thing that can be passed along with one result. I don’t think it really works that way.”
To scientists, though, the science is compelling. But if a great deal of longevity is genetic, it still expresses itself in unpredictable ways even among the most closely related—much as Mamie Kahn’s pot roast recipe was passed to her children in slightly variant forms. Peter’s aging has been as different from Irving’s and Happy’s as his picture of his early life is from their cheerful version. (He says that his parents were too busy to pay much attention and that the children were friendly but not close.) When Barzilai tells me several times that “there’s more than one way to get to 100,” he means that SuperAgers don’t typically have all the markers he’s studied; just one may be enough. But the statement could also mean that you can get to 100 in different conditions: depressed or happy, trapped or freed.
In any case, researchers are plotting alternate routes. Currently under way at Merck are Phase III trials of a drug that mimics the action of the CETP variant Barzilai has shown to correlate with cardiovascular and cognitive health in the SuperAgers. The results are expected in 2013. And though Barzilai is not affiliated with that project, he is working on his own longevity drugs through a biotech start-up he established with a colleague. One drug is based on a line of peptides he calls mitochines, which decrease with age in the normal population, but not as much among centenarians. He hopes to synthesize the chemical and “put it back in” where nature has leached it away.
Eventually, he says, the idea is to develop all such markers into longevity drugs and to “achieve a greater health span within our potential maximal life span.” Not that he calls them “longevity drugs” in grant proposals, since aging is not itself a diagnosis for treatment and thus not what the NIH looks for. “Instead, I say our mission is to prevent chronically debilitating diseases of old age”—basically, the big four. “There may be a side effect: It may increase life span. If so, we apologize.”
However worthy that sounds, it’s unclear to me whether the baby-boomers who may be the first beneficiaries of such death-delaying drugs are hardy enough to endure the extra decades of nonlethal afflictions they will face instead. And by baby-boomers I mean me. I have a hard enough time waiting three weeks for the results of my DNA test without worrying myself to death. How would I endure 30 extra years like that?
It looks like I won’t have to. Gil Atzmon tells me, in his gruff, amused, Israeli way, that I don’t have any copies of the protective CETP variant. Also, the lab was able to read only part of my APOE gene, so it’s impossible to say much about my risk for Alzheimer’s.
Even the one bit of good news is bittersweet: One sequence of my FOXO3A assay showed the “longevity genotype,” which suggests some protection against the diseases that killed my mother. (Presumably this “good” sequence came from my father.) But then Atzmon sighs portentously. “I’m sorry to say your telomeres are very short. Remember, this is like a thermometer. It was maybe you were stressed that day they drew your blood. But if you were on vacation, or feeling a little healthier, maybe we get a better result.”
I know: The test is descriptive, not predictive; an association, not proof. Still, I ask how bad it is.
“If I would place it in age,” Atzmon says, taking his time to consider, “I would believe you’re currently 75 to 80 years old.”
Oy. I feel like I’m 100.
What does a Jew hope people will say about him at his funeral?
“Look! He’s moving!”
Happy went to Tao for lunch without me. Over the next few days, she also dined at her other favorite restaurants, Lavo and Rue 57. She seemed intent on an even fuller schedule of activities than usual, as if she were checking off a list. She visited the Cornell Medical Center to meet a newly hired archivist, explored the Village in search of a restaurant where she and her husband once ate (it’s now a Starbucks, so she ordered coffee), had lunch at a friend’s apartment, and spent Sunday afternoon at the Central Park Zoo with Olive and Joseph’s nieces.