Science Book A Day Interviews Bill Gifford


Special thanks to Bill Gifford for answering 6 questions about his recently featured book – Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (or Die Trying)

Bill Gifford is a contributing editor for Outside Magazine and has written extensively on science, sports, health and fitness for Wired, Men’s Health, Men’s Journal, Slate, The New Republic, and Bicycling, among many other publications. He has been features editor of Men’s Journal and executive editor of Philadelphia Magazine, and his work has been anthologized in Best American Sportswriting. He is also the author of Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer, a biography of John Ledyard, the 18th-century explorer, traveler, and bon vivant. – From Bill’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for Spring Chicken?

It was a number of things, such as reaching my mid-40s, but the main trigger was watching my dogs reach the age of ten, which is canine senior citizen territory. They were brother and sister, and I’d had them since they were very young, and now they were these elderly creatures—and despite being littermates, they were very different from each other as oldsters. The male was still lively and puppyish, while the female seemed stiff and almost frail. They seemed to be aging at very different rates, but then the male died of cancer, despite seeming like the healthier of the two–I realized that there were lots and lots of unanswered questions about the aging process. It’s really the last great mystery in biology.

#2 – The science of ageing seems to change every moment. Are we finding REAL scientific break-thrus? Or are people selling us snake-oil?

People have always been peddling snake oil to “cure” aging, and they always will. Our fear of aging, which is fear of death, is ingrained in us. The good news is that, in the laboratory at least, scientists are able to manipulate the aging process with relative ease; they can make mice live nearly twice as long as normal, with various drugs, diets, and genetic manipulations. It’s pretty cool. The question is how to apply these techniques to humans, or to modify them so that they can help people live longer, healthier lives. We’re making slower progress there, but recent developments like Google’s “Calico” venture and a renewed interest by the pharmaceutical companies could bring major changes within the lifetimes of most people reading this.

#3 – How did you do the research for the wide ranging topics/people you cover in this book? Who/what was the most interesting thing you discovered in your research?

I’m an investigative reporter by temperament, so I approached Spring Chicken as a kind of personal investigation — what the heck is happening to me, as I get older? How am I changing, and can we please do something about it? So I started out by taking a graduate course in the Biology of Aging at Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, taught by leading experts in the field. After that I spent a couple of years traveling around to ageing conferences and labs around the country, seeking out the scientists who seemed to be doing the most interesting work. Ageing is such a broad, complex process, that there are a lot of different approaches to try and figure it out.

#4 – How do you think we will balance our ability to grow older and the difficulty of ageing with our cognitive faculties intact?

Cognitive decline is the elephant in the room. More than 40 percent of Americans over 85 have some degree of dementia, and as more of us reach that age, the number will likely increase. Yet there are no really effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. One area of research that does give one hope is the search for blood-borne factors that may help restore and revive aged neurons; this comes out of experiments involving parabiosis, stitching two animals together, old and young, like siamese twins, and they found that the older animals are enormously rejuvenated by exposure to the young blood. But beyond that, some research is showing that as many as 50 percent of Alzheimer’s cases could be preventable to some degree, by controlling factors such as obesity, insulin resistance, and blood pressure among others.

#5 – Just out, have you received any feedback about your book?

The response has been fantastic. I’ve done a lot of interviews, including Fresh Air on NPR, and at one point Spring Chicken had shot all the way up to #4 on the Amazon sales rankings. (I took a screenshot, I’ll admit.) I hear from people all the time, and I really enjoy talking to folks and just knowing that I’ve started conversations about aging healthily among friends and family. It’s an important thing for everyone to think about.

#6 – Are you working on any new books/projects you can tell us about?

I’m juggling several possible book ideas right now, and a few magazine assigments in the near term, as well as numerous speaking engagements to talk about Spring Chicken and the science of ageing. (Or if you prefer, not ageing.)

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