Jewish World Review July 26, 2004 / 8 Menachem-Av 5764
Drs. Michael A. Glueck & Robert J. Cihak
Medicine, genes, sports and longevity
Will our genes keep up with the advances in medicine? Can we burn our
medical and sports candle at both ends?
From birth to death, human life goes through a series of stages. But though
we all grow, age, and die, different cultures divide the stages
differently. Until rather recently, Americans have defined the life journey
as: a long, more or less sheltered childhood and youth, a few decades of
productive adulthood, then passive retirement accompanied by chronic
conditions of various sorts. Nowadays, however, more and more people
defined as <ì>children are accomplishing great things, while more and
more people who used to be considered over the hill are astonishingly
active and productive.
The stages of life ain't what they used to be. And the changes raise
questions about everything from <ì>youth cultureî> to the genetic nature
of our existence and medicine's proper role in prolonging and/or improving
To simplify, every organism has both a life span and a life expectancy.
"Life span" seems to be genetically fixed by the number of times cells can
reproduce without either dying or turning cancerous. "Life expectancy" is
how close you can get to your life span, and is determined by many factors
beyond biology (especially lifestyle).
For millennia, it was believed that the human life span was the Biblical
three score and ten, around 70, while life expectancy hovered around half
that. Adulthood came early for those who survived their childhoods. Decades
of debility and pain were the price of long life.
This changed dramatically in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as
medicine solved the "easy" problems infectious diseases, infant and
maternal mortality, sepsis, public health. At the same time, advances in
treating the conditions of the aging meant that people could now live well
past that three score and ten.
But society and culture didn't keep up. The result is a society in which
economically non-productive childhood can last twenty to thirty years,
while millions retire while still capable of great effort and
Recently, however, this has started to change. The phenomenon is especially
remarkable in athletics, where people in their sixties and even later are
climbing mountains and running marathons. It's also true in professional
sports, where athletes now routinely compete and compete well in latter
thirties and their forties. Think Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens in
baseball, Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul Jabbar in basketball, Martina
Navritilova in tennis.
Yet at the other end, world-class athletes are growing ever younger: Maria
Sharapova of the Newport Beach Breakers in tennis, Frankie Martinez (K-Rod
of the Angels) in Baseball, Freddie Abdu in soccer, Tiger Woods in golf.
The high school phenomenon, Lebron James, signed for 100 million in
basketball, not to mention an endless progression of barely post-pubescent
gymnasts and swimmers.
On one of these Medicine Men's local front, Aaron Peirsol of Newport Beach
won the 2000 Olympic Silver Medal in the 200 Meter backstroke after his
junior year at Newport Harbor High School and is favored for the Gold this
year. Misty May was one of the best volleyball players in the world as a
freshman at Newport Harbor.
So what does this mean? Several things. First, turning children into star
competitors is, in some ways, a reversion to a time when childhood ended
much earlier than nowadays. Children are no longer (if they ever were)
innocent beings to be protected for as long as possible from the adult
More broadly, America is now becoming a nation whose dominant youth culture
is adopted, not just by the middle-aged, but by those beyond middle age,
reversing the age-old notion that the young take their models from their
elders. What this may mean for the people in the middle "the productive
adults" over the next few decades is hard to tell.
But the most far-reaching question is genetic. Can science actually extend
the human life span by decades or more? Should it? Or should research
concentrate its scarce resources on adding more good years, making the
sixties and seventies as healthy and productive as possible? This is what
medicine has traditionally done; to attempt to extend the life span would
be a completely new undertaking.
Perhaps someday stem cells will give genetic first-aid but in our opinion
this will take far longer than patients hope and medical researchers
Editor's Note: Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D.
wrote this week's column.
Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., is a multiple award winning writer who comments
on medical-legal issues. Robert J. Cihak, M.D., is a Discovery Institute
Senior Fellow and a past president of the Association of American Physicians
and Surgeons. Both JWR contributors are Harvard trained diagnostic radiologists.
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