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Age Limits

Mark Williams

Cheating Time: Science, Sex, and Aging. Roger Gosden. 427 pp. W. H. Freeman, 1996. $23.95.

Why do we age? Which aspects of aging can we influence and which must we learn to accept? People have wondered about the riddle of aging since ancient times.

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In our own time, scientific inquiry has made some startling discoveries, and Roger Gosden, in Cheating Time, shares his perspective and insights on the history and implications of research in biomedical gerontology. Given his background in reproductive biology, Gosden, as one might expect, concentrates on changes in sex-hormone levels and issues related to hormone-replacement therapy.

The first section, "The Seeds of Time," addresses circadian rhythms and their hormonal controls. Gosden discusses the differential features of longevity among various animal species, the physiology of human aging, theories of aging, and finally the "great trade-off" or the theory of antagonistic pleiotropy which suggests a genetic trade-off between longevity and reproductive capacity. Sex hormones are especially important because they regulate the distribution of cellular resources between reproduction and other bodily processes. Ironically, the hormonal influences that govern reproductive capacity when we are young may create problems as we age. This insight sets the stage of the book's second section, "The Fruits of Time," which deals with the questions raised by hormonal manipulation. Gosden pays tribute to Charles-Edouard Brown-Sequard (1817–1894), a pioneer of sex-hormone research. In the 1890s, animal extracts promised to be elixirs of youth, and an entire chapter chronicles Brown-Sequard's claims of rejuvenation based on self-injected extracts of dog and guinea pig testicles, semen, and blood from the testicular veins. Sex-gland grafting flourished throughout the 1920s. Perhaps many of these misadventures are detailed to show how science builds from "fruitful errors." From here, Gosden moves through the changes that occur during menopause and the establishment of hormonal treatment with estrogens. He explores the controversies over hormonal-replacement therapy and outlines how longevity might be influenced by changing the timing of our biological clocks.

Gosden is an entertaining raconteur who skillfully weaves anecdotes, historical vignettes and biologic trivia into an interesting story. His conversational style balances humor and informality with accuracy and authority. The chapters are, however, sometimes uneven in their level of detail, and some digressions, although interesting, are tangential. Nevertheless, this informative book illuminates the scientific and historical roots of gerontological research, and readers interested in how and why we age will be brought up to date.—Mark Williams, Medicine, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


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