Archives for posts with tag: Ageing

This was the question posed at Cafe Scientifique, at The Royal Society tonight.

The speaker was Dr Matthew Piper, from the Institute of Healthy Ageing, University College London, who initially spoke about his research, which was then followed by an open discussion with questions.

Dr Piper’s research focuses primarily on the effects of nutrition on healthy ageing. First, he gave us a very comprehensive, and understandable, overview of where the hypothesis for his work originated.

The process of biological ageing appears to result from the (complex) interaction between our genes and our environment. Manipulation of environmental factors, although intuitive (for example lifestyle and cigarette smoking), does not appear to consistently influence longevity, and it seems increasingly more likely that genetic predisposition is the key. In 1977, a study in worms first demonstrated that a specific genetic mutation increased lifespan.

Research since then suggests that levels of insulin signalling seem to influence the process of ageing. The most accessible and realistic way of advantageously influencing these levels is through dietary intervention, specifically caloric restriction (it also appears that protein restriction is beneficial, but this may be specific to some amino acids, the details of which are currently unclear). Thus diets, such as the currently popular 5/2 diet (five days normal eating, two days restricted eating/fasting) that cut back significantly on caloric intake appear to turn off pathways when you do not need them (this applies to adults only, not children). A small amount of nutrients then appears to maximise the efficiency of the signalling pathways, without overloading them.

This, my reductionist summary, appears to be the scientific basis to current research that explores the biological causes of ageing, rather than ageing itself. The rationale appears to be that an understanding of the biology will help, not the symptoms of ageing per se, but the illnesses that partly, but not inevitably, define the process.

The science is fascinating, and I suspect I was not alone in the audience as I considered what I can do to positively influence my own ageing process…

However, I do have an issue with the medicalisation of ageing. To me, it is a natural and inevitable part of living beyond a certain biological age. Tonight I was confused at times as to whether we were talking about longevity (and I am not convinced of the value of this) or about ultimately decreasing age-related morbidity. Little was mentioned about quality of life.

I also worry that, given the fact that the elderly often feel invisible and neglected in society today, turning our attention to increasing lifespan may distract us from the non-medical issues that face our ageing population, such as isolation and social vulnerability (

My question following tonight’s most fascinating discussion is not whether growing old is an illness. Instead, I turn to the issue of increasing our lifespan, and question why that might be a good thing…


Another gem of a Christmas present was a subscription to The New Yorker. The first issue arrived last week, and there is so much of interest that several days later I am still reading it, and this week’s issue is due tomorrow…

For now, I want to mention an article by James Wood on Becoming Them: Our parents, our selves (

Woods reminisces, movingly, of Sundays when growing up, mostly the rituals and the boredom, but also memories of classical music, which his father was passionate about, but perhaps his children suffered from composer overload at an early age…

However, years later Woods discovered himself a passion for classical music, which persists in his forties. Perhaps this, just like the gesticulations, the little phrases that creep in as we age, not to mention the physical reminders, are part of the ‘plagiarism of inheritance.’

Seeing my parents in myself traumatised me around 10 years ago. Now, I am much more accepting of it. When I first noticed it, they were both alive. Within recent years, both died in relatively quick succession.

Woods suggests that we ‘mourn them [our parents] only haplessly, accidentally, by surviving them.’ A friend of Wood’s challenges this view and believes that the real point is that we become our parents, taking on their gestures and habits once they have died.

A preservation of past generations, but not as in ‘they live on in our memories’, more in terms of those before us continuing within us in an unavoidable physical (and social) sense. Utterly rational when you consider science and DNA, not to mind ‘nuture’, but…

Thus, you potentially mourn your parents by becoming them. This feels more than a little weird to me (but may also merely reflect my own mourning processes, or lack of).

But Woods moves onto another interesting point. if you can mourn your parents by becoming then, then surely you can also mourn them before they die. This I get. As I child, I (shamefully and secretly) wished that my parents died together in a car accident. The thought that one would be left alone, forever grieving and sad for the other, felt unbearable to me.

As I grew up, and left, I dwelt less on the fact that my parents would inevitably die. Old age arrived, and with it a world for them that became increasingly smaller, and exclusive. In latter years, I never seemed to find a way into this terrain.

Woods challenges Larkin’s line about life being first a thing of boredom, then later replaced by fear, suggesting that fear comes first.

I am not convinced. Boredom seems to me the prerogative of children, and, from what I have witnessed, fear, if and when it appears, and this is of course by no means universal, can escalate as both time and worlds shrink.


I have seen all of Michael Haneke’s films to date, and so, unsurprisingly, I very much looked forward to his latest creation, Amour, which I saw tonight.

I am not sure I fully understand my fascination with Haneke’s work. It probably results from a combination of factors, from its ability to simultaneously surprise, seduce, shock, distress, and disturb.

Amour has been much hyped, particularly since its Palme D’Or accolade at Cannes in May. There have been many reviews, and 5-star ratings, and a further, albeit much more pedestrian, review would be superfluous. What I can share, is how the film made me feel. Or, I should qualify, how it made me feel during the screening and immediately afterwards. I suspect that over the next days, much more will evolve personally from my experience of seeing Amour.

I found it extraordinary. But in a different way to his other work. I found it extraordinary in how it moved me, and also in the extent to which it disturbed me, much more than Benny’s video or The Seventh Continent. I suspect this results from the fact that the subject matter for Amour is so ‘ordinary’ and real and human, that this, perhaps perversely makes the work feel so important, and critical. Essentially, it is the potential story of you or me, and our frailties and vulnerabilities. Perhaps life doesn’t get more scary than that.

I wondered whether, having seen the film in a pretty packed cinema on a Friday night, such a topic would have been so welcome in mainstream cinema 10, even 5 years ago…

Progress, of sorts.

Go see.


I often look to poetry to facilitate a discussion with myself about something…in this case ageing.

Larkin is often dismissed as a pessimist, as the poet not to read if you are feeling remotely low. But I love his frankness, his realness, his putting-out-there, sometimes uncomfortably for the reader, of truths that define our humanness.

Take ageing.

We see Larkin approach this theme, gently perhaps, in Trees (In Collected Poems, London: Faber, 2003, p.124):

‘The trees are coming into leaf

Like something almost being said;

The recent buds relax and spread,

Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again

And we grow old? No, they die too.’

There is a nostalgic, even romantic tone to the similarly themed Age (p.60):

‘My age fallen away like white swaddling

Floats in the middle distance, becomes

An inhabited cloud.’

But The Old Fools (p. 131) is different. It exposes the vulnerability of ageing, ‘the whole hideous inverted childhood’. Nothing appears to be gained from the process of ageing, of being old, and Larkin seems angry and resentful:

‘What do they think has happened, the old fools,

To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose

It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,

And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember

Who called this morning?’

The anger calms as the poem progresses, as ageing and old age appear to equate with loss, but also the possibility of hope:

‘Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms

Inside your head, and people in them, acting.

People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms

Like a deep loss restored…’


June 25, 2012

‘Old age is not an illness, it is a timeless ascent…’

Mary Sarton, quoted in Harriet Walter’s Reflections on Images of Older Women (London: Facing It Publications, 2011, p.186)

I love this quote, as it blatantly challenges what society appears to increasingly aspire to, the body that defies age and ageing. We seem to go to endless lengths to hide/mask/deny our age, ignoring our bodies relentless, and necessary, need to age, and to wither. Along the way, we forget to celebrate what it is to be human, and to age.

Thus, it is refreshing to see this year’s winner of the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery, Aleah Chapin’s nude painting of a family friend, Auntie. It is an unashamedly proud work of art. ‘Auntie’, with grey, slightly dishevelled hair, stands before us, smiling fondly and indulgently, completely at ease, and comfortable in her skin. It is an ageing skin, and the painting speaks of a reality and a truth that transcends our notions of ‘youthful beauty.’ It is a beautifully seductive, and brave (though it should not need to be, but critics have not universally applauded its honesty) piece. I applauded the decision to award the prize to Daphne Todd in 2010 for the portrait of her dead mother, and I am again heartened and reassured that, amidst so many pressures to do otherwise, we can embrace and celebrate the vulnerability, fragility and beauty that define us, at every age.