A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and
By Andrew Weil
Knopf. 293 pp. $27.95
Andrew Weil wants us to be sensible about growing old. In Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-Being, he argues that we should not fight aging. There's no winning that war. Instead, we should concentrate on aging well, letting "nature take its course while doing everything in our power to delay the onset of age-related disease, or, in other words, to live as long and as well as possible, then have a rapid decline at the end of life." The Fountain of Youth? Shangri-La? Potions to stop the aging process? Bunk. There may be effective promotional campaigns for such miracles as human growth hormone, arctic root or the mushroom reishi, but "there are no effective anti-aging medicines." The hype works because we are so fearful. Weil's book, though poorly written and inflated with familiar information, is likely to be bought for the same reason.
Weil sees aging as a kind of opportunity for spiritual growth, though he grudgingly acknowledges some of the drawbacks. "Yes, aging can bring frailty and suffering," he says, with a hint of indulgence over our concern with arthritic joints, chronic illness, exhaustion and dementia, "but it can also bring depth and richness of experience, complexity of being, serenity, wisdom, and its own kind of power and grace." He wants us to focus on the positive, to take charge and responsibility. "The goal is to adapt to the changes that time brings and to arrive in old age with minimal deficits and discomforts -- in technical terms, to compress morbidity." All this is consistent with Weil's practice of Integrative Medicine, which deals with a patient's whole self -- body, mind and spirit. But it might have been more convincing if Chapter One began with something other than a story about Weil euthanizing his dog when she got old and rickety -- and presumably sated with serenity and wisdom.
Nevertheless, despite occasional stumbling prose, he spins a reasonable case for realistic later-life management. Weil is 60 himself now, and the issue of aging clearly matters to him personally. The book includes occasional autobiographical asides ("I do not use antiaging cosmetics and have no interest whatever in cosmetic surgery") and a tribute to his mother, who died at 93 ("just as I was about to turn from writing about the science and philosophy of aging to the practicalities of it").
Such references remind the reader that Weil is a real person, a teaching doctor with a practice. His writing has a recognizable tone of flat, exasperated poise: "I want to warn you that the promises you will hear from practitioners of antiaging medicine are going to become more extravagant in coming years." But he, too, makes promises, promises of health through his own products: You can buy Andrew Weil vitamins and nutritional supplements, sign up online for membership in Dr. Weil's Optimum Health Plan and shop at Dr. Weil's Marketplace.
That slant becomes especially apparent in the second section of Healthy Aging. In the first part, Weil provides the reasoning behind his approach. Medicine, he says, is at best capable of "extending life without preserving health." He warns us to "be wary of wishing for life extension without thinking through the details of what your extended life will be like." Cells are programmed to age and die: "When cells become immortal, they are cancerous." He levels a prolonged attack on the industry of anti-aging medicine. Citing studies disproving the claims of treatments marketed as life-extending, he concludes that it is difficult to find unbiased information on their benefits or dangers "because most of the doctors and other experts who talk and write about it are in one way or another involved with its distribution and marketing." A reader comes away from the book's first 125 pages purged of illusions. No miracles out there.
The second half of the book tells how to "live long and well." Much of it will be familiar to any health-conscious reader. Focusing first on the body, it suggests what seems to be the standard heart-smart diet -- not a diet, really, but "the nutritional component of a healthy lifestyle." So we should eat right. Supplements like his own multivitamins are good, of course. We should keep physically active, rest, touch each other, especially through massage, and have sex (especially old folks). For the mind, Weil suggests cultivating stress management techniques such as meditation and visualization, channeling thoughts or emotions or attitudes in useful directions, and working our brains hard, as by learning a new language. We should also enhance our spiritual lives. This package of practicalities feels bland and, well, packaged. Here Weil sounds less like a doctor than like a sales representative for Dr. Andrew Weil products. We know what to do, and it is, as ever, up to us to do it right. *
Floyd Skloot's memoir of living with brain damage, "In the Shadow of Memory," won the 2004 PEN Center USA Literary Award. The sequel, "A World of Light," has just been published.