Jewish World Review July 26, 2004 / 8 Menachem-Av 5764

Drs. Michael A. Glueck & Robert J. Cihak

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Medicine, genes, sports and longevity


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | 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 <>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 <>youth culture to the genetic nature of our existence and medicine's proper role in prolonging and/or improving that existence.


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.

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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 accomplishment.


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 world.


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 expect.

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. Comment by clicking here.

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