“The Legacy of Genes”, both title and subtitle (“What Science Can Teach Us About Aging”) is a self-help book, not a scientific book. Good self-help: Recommendations based on scientific knowledge, if possible without the barrier of technical language.
The notebook by Mayana Zatz and Martha San Juan França does not skimp on references to research by renowned institutions. Highlight is the 80mais project, a study that has been ongoing since 2010 at the Center for the Study of the Human Genome and Stem Cells (CEGH-CEL) at the USP von Zatz.
The geneticist achieved fame in 2008 when he successfully defended research on stem cells from human embryos before the Supreme Court. Today, pluripotent cells can be obtained without destroying embryos and are one of the many tools that Zatz and colleagues use to explore the biological secrets of aging.
It is the theme of 80mais which focuses on genome sequencing (DNA spelling) of healthy and active people over 80 years of age. By studying the genes of luminaries such as the now 93-year-old physicist José Goldemberg, the project aims to identify genetic variants that could explain why some old people remain in good physical and mental health despite the inevitable physiological decline.
As told in the book by science journalist Martha San Juan França, the 80plus has grown significantly over the years. Three partnerships have contributed to this.
First approached was Zatz’s team from the Sabe Project at the School of Public Health at USP, which has been collecting clinical data from people over 60 since 2000. Later, the Albert Einstein Hospital suggested including magnetic resonance images in the collection of the university brains of the participants.
The American company Human Longevity, owned by the notorious scientist and entrepreneur Craig Venter, was ready to sequence the complete genome of hundreds of elderly Brazilians for free – as long as they had access to the data. After that, foreigners became disinterested, but the amount of information enriched the bank of the CEGH-CEL.
From such an arsenal, one could conclude that much has been discovered about which genes influence longevity and well-being in old age. But not: Little is known yet about what might explain the brevity of the work (compare with the 680 pages of a bestseller like “The Gene” by Siddartha Mukherjee).
Although the book explains well that age is not a disease, genomics has the same difficulty in solving the suffering of the elderly that fulfills the promise of disease detection and introduces the promise of personalized precision medicine.
Two decades after the human genome was published, there are examples of successful treatments derived this way, but few. It is known that genes are correlated with certain diseases – from breast cancer to Alzheimer’s – but such findings have nowhere near defeated tumors, dementia, or depression.
It is true that Zatz and França’s volume carefully explains the limits of this scientific strategy of shooting at the visible (billions of genetic letters in DNA) in the hope of hitting what has not been seen (biochemical details of diseases, the clues to the Development of therapies and drugs).
At one point or another the text still uses reductionist expressions, for example when it says that a gene “determines” such a trait or protein. But the book is miles away from the rhetorical exaggeration that helped raise the nearly $ 3 billion Human Genome Project.
By showing demographic characteristics of aging in Brazil, “O Legado dos Genes” makes it clear that the genome ultimately has little to do with the depressing situation of the elderly here. For example, the Sabe project found that almost everything went from bad to worse between the 2000 survey and 2015-2017.
The reported incidence of hypertension ranged from 53.3% to 66.3%; Diabetes from 17.9% to 28.3%; Cancer, from 3.3% to 9.3%; Heart problems, from 20% to 23.8%. Only chronic lung diseases fell from 12.2% to 7.9%.
Given the meager results of genomic research to alleviate the diseases of old age and the living conditions we banish older people in Brazil, the work offers little for those stepping into the dark tunnel of the 60-year-old. No more than common sense: staying mentally active, even in retirement, doing sports, taking care of food and sleep, maintaining optimism, strengthening bonds with friends and family …
With the Covid-19 pandemic, of course, it all got complicated and the lives of the elderly only got worse. Several breadwinners died, many still active jobs were lost, survivors were imprisoned and depressed.
França portrays some old men who survived a lot, including newborns and centenarians who beat the new coronavirus. Those who have not yet got there (and are afraid of not getting there) would leave reading less overwhelmed if these resisters gained more life and space in the book, because never before have grandparents, parents and children struck it Landes needs stories so much to overcome them.