Human Aging Considered as an Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Part I)

by Bernard Brandt


Well, last Tuesday morning the temperature in wonderful downtown San Pedro dipped to below 60° F. for the first time this year, right down to an absolute bone-chilling 55°. My reaction, like that of many spoiled SoCal residents, was to stay in bed until far later, and then to turn on the pilots of the two wall heaters in my living room and bedroom. Those who come from far chillier climes, who have to deal with far worse on a regular basis, are free to post negs to their heart’s content.

It is still the case that winter is coming on. And some of us are less able to handle it than others. As I am getting older myself, and have now reached my 63rd year, I find myself less able to handle the cold, or illness, or walk quite as far as I used, or work as hard, or lift as much. I have also had the experience, over the last few years, of watching many people whom I love, including both my wives, weaken, sicken, and finally die.

I am of two minds about life and death, as a result. I have come to know that death is not a wall, but a door. Many of my friends are on the other side. I’d like to be with them. On the other hand, I have seen how age and death weakens and humbles us. Since I can’t hasten the process and still get to be with my friends (or so I’ve been told), I might as well try to arrange things so that I can take care of myself for as long as possible. It’s not as though anyone else will.

So, my attitude is that of one of the sayings in the Philokalia: ‘A monk should attempt to arrange things so that he will live as long as possible, and yet be willing to give up that life in an instant.’ I suppose that I can live with that. I’ll have to.

I’ve been thinking about the process of maintaining one’s life since I was 24 or so, and had my first serious illness. I started looking at the two main methods that people use to postpone death: diet and exercise.

As to diet, I’ve looked at a number of ways that people have used to try to live for a long time. Mega-vitamin and mega-supplements have been one such. This has led largely to the development of the term ‘hypervitaminosis’, or illnesses which occur from taking too many vitamins. The so-called ‘Atkin’s diet’ was another, a fad which continued until the death of the said Mr. Atkins from malnutrition. A third diet, the so-called ‘Pritikin’ diet, was named after Nathan Pritikin, who found that atherosclerosis, diabetes, and other diseases could be reversed by a low fat, low protein, high complex carb diet. Unfortunately, it was not proof against the leukemia which ultimately ended his life.

I’ve also looked at exercise, starting with fads like the late Jim Fix’s exercise plan involving constant running, or Arnold Schwartznegger’s massive weightlifting program. From where I’m standing, neither of those look too good right now. Of course, it probably would have helped had Arnie not gotten so extensively into steroids in his youth. But it worked for a while…

I suppose what I’ve taken away from all that study is the following: 1) if you maintain your ideal weight, and avoid a lot of interabdominal fat, you can avoid the tendency towards diabetes, atherosclerosis, heart disease, and many cancers which come as a consequence of relatively high blood sugars; 2) a diet high in simple sugars, carbohydrates, and fat is more apt to create the conditions for the high blood sugars mentioned above than one of high fat and protein; 3) an exercise regimen of walking six miles a day, together with some daily musculo-skeletal exercise (weights or calisthenics or just plain physical labor) can keep the cardiovascular system together, and won’t put the strain on you that running or heavy weights will; 4) a diet light in animal products, either by omitting them altogether, or by periodic fasting and abstinence, also helps in maintaining ideal weight and avoiding the cascade of degenerative diseases proceeding from diabetes or atherosclerosis; 5) if one is going to go vegan, one should make judicious use of protein mixing, and either start eating tempeh, or occasionally having yogurt, to maintain one’s B12 levels; 6) an occasional pipe or cigar is not a problem, but chronic cigarette use is; and 7) a glass or three of beer or wine a day is not a problem, but much more than that is.

While I’m afraid that in the last few years of my wife Beth’s demise, and in the months after, I had ignored some of those findings, I’ve since decided to return to them. In the last year or so, I’ve managed substantially to lower my weight, and greatly to reduce the inter-abdominal fat. I’ve also increased walking substantially, and am just about back to six miles a day, largely by greatly reducing my use of the car and using the local Metro instead. Tobacco was never a problem, and while alcohol has been, I’ve managed to cut down considerably.

So I have the potential for living as long as my father, or twenty more years of life, or even thirty, if I take as good of care of myself as my grandfather did. But even with all of that, it’s a matter of ‘eat well, get plenty of sun, fresh air, and exercise, and die anyway’. Assuming I don’t get hit by a truck, or some such.

At this point, I would like to introduce several concepts developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb: ‘fragility’, and its allied concepts of robustness, and of ‘anti-fragility’. Basically, Taleb, a statistician, is saying that in calculating risks, it is fruitful to examine whether a particular thing or process is fragile, robust, or anti-fragile to that risk. For example, a Ming vase or a glass is fragile to the risk of being dropped, or having a cat bump the same off a shelf onto a hard floor below. Said vase or glass is more or less robust to said risk if the vase or glass are packed in materials resistent to being dropped. And, if the vase or glass are made of materials which become the stronger the more they are dropped or bumped, then they are anti-fragile to that risk.

So far, most folk have discussed health and aging from the point of view that humans have been fragile to the universal risk of human aging. Far fewer have considered the factors that allow a human being to be robust to old age. I believe that I have attempted to do so in the course of this little essay. In later parts of this essay, I shall treat with the following: 1) age considered as an inborn immune deficiency syndrome; 2) the necessity of considering age as such a syndrome before attempts at human longevity become possible; 3) the inability of modern medical science, as presently constituted, to achieve human longevity, save at great expense, and for a minority of humanity; and 4) the possibility of achieving some simple measures which would allow human longevity.