I have just escaped from an intense three-day scientific meeting here in Santa Barbara arranged by the Glenn Foundation on Aging Research. It is a high-level convocation of experts in the exciting features of the science of aging. Dozens of oral and poster presentations explored the arcane array of this new basic science.
I write this in the aura of tedium that is the inevitable byproduct of days of lectures and powerpoints. I have been the audience for decades of my life at meetings such as this. Representatives of many academic centers were at this meeting, many of whom I knew. It was grand to rub shoulders with some of your old colleagues and respected experts. Just about every one of these multiple reports involved taking things apart, multiple examples of reductive strategy. One happy observation was that the drug companies were only minimally represented, I guess recognizing finally that Big Pharma has little role to play in aging because aging is not a disease but rather a life process.
One of my favorite anecdotes derives from my long deep friendship with George Sheehan. George was a cardiologist from Red Bank, New Jersey, who forsook his medical career in his 60s to devote himself to demonstrating the benefits of a physically active lifestyle. He had been a high school runner and maintained his running commitment for the rest of his life. His book Running and Being remains my favorite of the dozens of such books in my library. (1) It was on the New York Times bestseller list for most of one year and represented a brilliant display of the Zen of running beyond the simple physical benefits. George became a regular columnist for Runner's World magazine where his writing was immensely enriched by his background schooling as a Jesuit. He quoted Spinoza and William James and Kierkegaard and Gandhi and Ecclesiastes. His writing was fabulous.
George and I found many occasions to bond usually around the major marathons. I had him give a speech for me at Stanford at one of my 50+ Lifelong Fitness Association meetings. Many of us were in tears of tenderness when he had finished.
George had prostate cancer. We all knew this. Fortunately it lay dormant for many years until it exploded maybe 20 years ago. I was running in the Big Sur Marathon, my favorite, when I bumped into George Hirsch, who is the publisher of Runner's World magazine and a friend of George and me. I inquired immediately of George and he said, "George is dying. I saw him last week at the Boston Marathon, and he was largely absent due to weakness." I was shocked. George can't die. I won't let him. So early the next morning I was on the phone. "Yes, Walter, I'm dying. I'm in pain, and I'm so weak that walking is an effort. My blood hemoglobin level is only seven, and should be 15."
"You stupid bastard, George. Take some transfusions and get some morphine."
"No Walter, I'm dying."
Doctors are terrible patients, but my friendship prevailed.
So he started morphine, and had some blood transfusions, and he called me the next afternoon just having returned from a pleasant outing at the racetrack.
He embraced his schedule of transfusions and morphine and lived an acceptable additional year of life before he died. He told of this encounter in his book One Man's Journey to the End of his Life. (2)
As he was dying he became reflective. "I look back and recognize that when I was 6 years old my life was perfect. Mommy and Daddy hugged me a lot. I had a puppy, the bed was dry. Life was grand.
But then I turned 7 and nothing has been the same since.
I pondered this negative transition for a long time. then I figured it out. When I was 6 I kept asking everybody why? Why Mommy? Why teacher? Why everybody? But when I turned 7 I stopped asking why and started asking how. Life has never been the same since."
So it was with my medical meeting. I listen to all of the presentations and their sequence of hows, but what about the whys? I hope that science can dig deeper and give the answers beyond hows. Aristotle and Sheehan figured that the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. All of the hows do not equal the why.
Let us all keep searching for why.
1) Sheehan G. Running and Being 1990 Second Wind Press NY
2) Sheehan G Going the Distance; One Man' s Journey to the End of His Life. 1996 Random House NY