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Dodging the Silver Bullet

A couple of scientists at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine have come up with the latest gimmick designed to delay the inevitable. They’re taking aim at the senescent cells that have been implicated in speeding the aging process along: Clean those out of your system, they say, and you’ll live to a ripe old age.

“The usual caveats apply — it’s got to be reproduced by other people — but if it’s correct, without wanting to be too hyperbolic, it’s one of the more important aging discoveries ever,” Norman Sharpless, of the North Carolina School of Medicine, told The Atlantic.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that another Mayo scientist and a colleague from the University of Illinois are trying to raise $50 million or so to begin testing metformin, a generic diabetes drug, to see if it can quell the chronic ailments that tend to cut short our time here on earth. You might call it a more holistic approach, except for the fact that it involves taking a pill.

“Our goal is to establish the principle of using a drug, or two in combination, to extend health span,” said Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a member of the research team. “The best we can expect from metformin is two or three additional years of healthy aging. But the next generation of drugs will be much more potent.”

I was struck by these two anti-aging “breakthroughs” last week in the wake of a session with a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) — a set of healing arts that is as ancient as metformin is modern. I was there to see what could be done about the annoying tingling and numbness that’s been plaguing my right arm. The results, in my already biased view, once again demonstrate how modern “anti-aging” research continues to miss the point.

As I noted in last week’s ramblings, the online diagnosis of my problem is a rather common ailment among people my age: cervical stenosis or cervical spondylosis. Our aging spinal canals gradually narrow, disrupting the signals from our spinal chords and rendering our arms less than fully functional. Preferred treatment options include corticosteroid injections and muscle relaxants — silver bullets aimed directly at the offending body part.

I wasn’t about to go there. Instead, I climbed onto a massage table and my TCM guy, a lanky, well-bearded fellow named Ben, began working on my tight fascia, manipulating my veins and arteries, and applying pressure to specific meridians — all with an eye toward releasing clogged energy and restoring the flow of Qi throughout my body. While he worked on the bottoms of my feet, he explained how circulatory issues or muscle imbalances in one part of the body can create problems elsewhere.

The basic mantra: Everything is connected.

When I got off the table 90 minutes later, the numbness and tingling were gone.

I don’t subscribe to the notion of miracle cures, whether they’re delivered by conventional or alternative treatments (though my acupuncturist once cured a headache — quite instantly — by poking a single needle into my forehead). But what I have learned over the years is that the body is an ecosystem. And any treatment protocol that focuses on a single symptom or biological mechanism is probably not worth pursuing. Just peruse the small print in any Big Pharma ad if you need any convincing on this point; those side effects are the unintended consequences of a symptom-centric approach to healing.

The anti-aging industry is particularly susceptible to this way of thinking. It’s sort of the Holy Grail of medical research, so I suppose those Mayo guys can be excused for spending all those hours in the lab trying to come up with a longevity-enhancing pill. But the body is a complicated organism and not particularly receptive to silver bullets. Diet, exercise, stress, genetics, attitude — all these and more play a role in how smoothly we’ll travel to Geezerville and beyond. No miracle drug is going to make it easier.

The day after I visited Ben, the tingling and numbness in my arm returned, but not as strong or as frequent as before. It’s just another reminder that the body takes it’s own sweet time to heal. Patience, I’ve learned, is often the best medicine of all.

Thoughts to share?

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