It’s hard to ignore Silicon Valley’s all-out war against mortality, but listening to your doctor may be a better choice, say Brunswick’s Kevin Helliker and David Seldin
A recent article in the New Yorker magazine reports on a Silicon Valley movement to make death optional. Called “Silicon Valley’s Quest to Live Forever,” the article profiles some brilliant, well-funded scientists and entrepreneurs bent on curing senescence – the cell deterioration that causes symptoms of aging. Along with their wealthy benefactors, these longevity explorers break into two camps: those who want to eliminate death altogether (or at least, the inevitability of it) and those pursuing the more modest goal of extending life by 30 high-quality years.
The ambitions of that movement could fool you into lowering your regard for modern medicine, which from 1930 to 2010 helped add a measly 16 years to the average American life. By Silicon Valley standards, that’s slow and plodding progress. Then again, it’s real progress, versus the possibly fantastical hopes of some Ponce-de-Léon cover bands in Silicon Valley. Worth noting is that the New Yorker examination found no evidence of any longevity breakthroughs.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to bet against Silicon Valley; we still cringe at the memory of rating Facebook stock overvalued. And it’s appealing to think that while we’re ensconced in our leather furniture binging on Netflix and nachos, there’s a team of geniuses out there waging a war to keep us alive. For us, living forever may turn out to be as simple as downloading an app.
In case that doesn’t happen, however, we might want to make some changes. Our diet generally is less healthy than it was 100 years ago, and we’re not exercising as much, which helps explain an epidemic of Type 2 diabetes and the staggering global toll of heart disease. Modern medicine is devising ever more treatments to protect us not from the plagues of nature, but from ourselves.
What to do? The obvious recommendation is to find a primary care physician who documents and gives careful thought to your medical history, including the health biographies of your children, siblings and parents. Your doctor should also double as a coach who nudges you toward healthier habits. That’s not a given – research shows that many primary care doctors barely mention diet and exercise.
If your physician seems unaware of the latest medical study to grab headlines, that’s a good thing. Weird and wacky medical stories get a lot of clicks, ensuring good play regardless of the science behind them. Just when popular medical thinking got us used to eating fake butter, the wind shifted, and suddenly the culprit is sugar. Most primary care physicians get their information from medical journals and scientific conferences, where shifts in practice guidelines come at the unavoidably slow pace of medical research. A good doctor is one who never pushed extreme diets or 140-mile triathlons, arguing instead for boring old moderation.
“As much as we try to control our weight with fad diets or supplements or the next great drug, it’s really about enjoying the food you like in moderation, moving your body doing something that you like, and being happy without feeling like you need to be a triathlete or eat like a monk,” says Tracy Rydel, a family practice practitioner and faculty instructor at the Stanford School of Medicine.
Dr Rydel and her colleague, Megan Mahoney have family medicine practices in Silicon Valley. When not treating patients, Dr Mahoney is Chief of General Primary Care at Stanford, as well as Vice Chief of Staff of the entire Stanford health care system. Dr Rydel teaches medical students and is also leading a task force that aims to overhaul the nutrition curriculum at the school as well as on a national scale for medical students and other health professionals.
As family medicine physicians, Drs Mahoney and Rydel administer the vaccines, antibiotics, scans, checkups and other medicines and services that have played a large a role in elongating lives. Their clinical experience has also taught them how to coach patients toward healthier lifestyles. As academics, they know the latest science, and as clinicians they know how best to implement it.