Age Over Beauty

Tucson's Dr. Andrew Weil attempts to talk sense into image-crazy Americans

These days, beauty no longer defers to age. The opposite is true. We all seem to prize youth, and we discriminate indiscriminately against those we perceive as old. We seek Botox, plastic surgery, drugs and diet pills in an effort to stave off the inevitable.

To Dr. Andrew Weil, however, such a mindset is unfortunate. With his new book Healthy Aging, Weil, at 63, has become one of Tucson's most famous full-time resident authors. Appearing on the cover of Time magazine, and featured in The New York Times and on the Today show, Weil talks about aging gracefully as an option to being influenced by Hollywood's belief that if don't look less than 30, you're not really alive.

Certainly, Weil is himself a proponent of both traditional and alternative diet and lifestyle choices to optimize a slower aging process. On Today, Katie Couric even called him a "guru" of such. Yet as founder of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, he has talked nationwide about wellness based on diet for years, causing Time to recently declare, "No other physician has done more to shape the direction of medical education in America." This doesn't sound at all like a man dispensing questionable remedies from a desert cloister, despite his large gray beard. Maybe he just looks like a guru.

Weil's new book is indeed quite scientifically realized. Despite its subtitle, A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-Being, it parallels--in many ways--the best-sellers of Dr. Nicholas Perricone, with an analysis of the biological changes that appear on the cellular level due to stress hormones, free radicals and the natural, progressive shortening of telomeres on the ends of chromosomes. Weil even advises adopting an anti-inflammatory diet, using spices like turmeric and eating fish like salmon. Dermatologist Perricone, meanwhile, appears on the cover of Life Extension magazine with the head of a salmon on the plate before him. The irony here is not that both men espouse the same regimen, but rather that Weil appears to be more skeptical of an industry that exploits our desire for immortality. As Weil puts it, "I am dismayed by the emphasis on appearance in anti-aging medicine." The other irony is that he dismisses claims that real life extension is on the horizon, because "nature doesn't care about individuals, only their genes." For sure, once you pass your immortal DNA on, nature is pretty much done with you. So where's the irony here, you ask? Most visibly of all, salmon die soon after spawning.

As to whether there may ever be a pill that can extend human life beyond the current upper limit of 120 years, Weil cites the success of Dr. Cynthia Kenyon in her research with nematodes. It is the same scientist who inspired my own upcoming suspense novel, Geezer, due to the 50 percent increase in life span that Kenyon observed in worms known to researchers as caenorhabditis elegans. Yet despite Kenyon's gene manipulation, and the hope of the company she founded, Elixir, worms are not humans. (Or at least not MOST humans, although the killer who steals an experimental longevity formula in Geezer in order to secretly test it on a small town's residents might qualify.)

Until a real breakthrough in life extension comes, what are we to do? This is the question that Weil answers in Healthy Aging, with proven science to back him up. What distinguishes his answers from the more aggressive fad-diet and exercise books on the market is his tone. This is especially evident on the audiobook version that he narrates. "Aging can bring frailty and suffering, but it can also bring depth and richness of experience, complexity of being, serenity, wisdom and its own kind of power and grace," he says.

Weil is not preaching or conducting a pep rally here. He respects his audience. They are, after all, not children, and what aging Americans need now, especially in this area, is a little dignity. His advice? Live in moderation; eat a wide selection of natural, whole foods; exercise regularly but not too much; touch a lot; and don't fret over those wrinkles or a few extra pounds. In this way, you will be joining good company, including even those few in Hollywood who have seen the insanity of an unwise obsession for what it is, like Jamie Lee Curtis, star of the 1985 movie Perfect. Or Lauren Bacall, Paul Newman, and Robert Redford. Or Colin Powell.

Pair this book with The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle--another book without a trace of hype--and you have a roadmap for real peace, health and happiness.