Start with the accident. Only, it wasn’t an accident in the frightening, possibly fatal sense. Although it did happen in a car, and it certainly wasn’t intentional.
Around Christmas, I pulled into a gas station to pick up my morning energy drink. I drink at least one every day, usually two. Never as many as four. I don’t drink coffee. I was maybe not fully awake, though I can’t really list that as even a half-hearted excuse, since a) I was still driving, and b) it’s not as though I was up before dawn.
I took my foot off the gas and turned into the parking spot at the side of the building. Then I got confused.
In that moment, I forgot which pedal I had just taken my foot off of. I blanked on which pedal was for stopping and which was for going. Instinctively, I moved my foot to the left, but I was suddenly certain I was wrong, and that if I pushed down, I’d lurch headlong into the side of the Mac’s.
It’s knowledge that’s as familiar as tying my shoe, which I’ve exercised without much thought since I was 16, but that morning it got muddled and slippery. I was lost, as if the number of pedals had doubled, and any one I pressed would lead to me smashing my parents’ Astro van into a building.
And in the end, that’s what happened. Though, I can’t exaggerate, I was going 10 km/hr max. There was no damage to the wall or my family’s van. But it was unnerving. I experienced my first Senior Moment. The real-world result of having the brain of someone in their 50s.
Which, fine, but I’m only 30 years old.
LAST SUMMER, I went to an age management clinic. I was turning 30, and wasn’t happy about it, the same way most people over, say, 29 aren’t happy about their birthdays. Maybe I was a little more upset than most people, but that’s impossible to know. Mortality — and its inherent deadline for success and satisfaction — is a scary thing. That’s why places like the DeerFields Clinic exist.
Only, there aren’t many places like DeerFields Clinic. It sits on a converted ranch outside of Toronto and has the relaxed aura of a sanitarium from the 1900s. If that sounds ominous, it’s not supposed to. The grounds, the stables, the homey accommodations, the spa and even the medical offices, tucked in the basement underneath the small restaurant, practically sigh. It’s a place to rest, with horses and free-range food. A place to — if not be reborn — at least de-age.
“Don’t talk about the grounds,” Dawn Pentesco tells me the first time I go there. She’s the marketing woman showing me around like a proud parent. “Whenever people come here, they get distracted by the accommodations, by everything we have here, and how it looks, but they don’t talk about what we actually do.”
What they do, at least what they’ll do for me, is discover my physiological age, as compared to my chronological age. Then, with that knowledge, they make life plans for their clients that involve exercise, diet, supplements and hormone therapy to help reverse the aging process. According to the man in charge, Dr. Randy Knipping, their work can make people at least 11 years younger. That’s the work that has been peer reviewed and published, anyway. A 50-year-old can, physiologically, become 39.
“Imagine a classroom of 10-year-olds,” Dr. Knipping tells me. “At about that age, everyone is basically at the same age, biologically speaking. After that, lifestyle, disease, genetics, diet all start to change things. When that same group is in their twenties, some will seem younger and others will be living harder.”
Knipping uses biomarkers of physiological function to determine your true age. These are things like your lung strength, your circulatory health, your brain power, your endocrine and immune system, your skin and, especially, your telomeres. “If there is one candidate to be considered the body’s molecular clock, then one of the frontrunners must be the length of our telomeres,” the hefty package they sent me home with explains. “Telomeres are the caps on the ends of each of our chromosomes that protect them from being mistaken for damaged DNA.” As our cells divide, these ends deplete — like the tips of shoelaces wear out with each tie. Once they deplete past a certain point, they fail to perform their function and “produce detrimental inflammatory molecules. The molecular clock stops ticking,” the literature says. One of the major treatments DeerFields offers is a way to stop the wearing down of these telomeres.
While it takes at least two visits to see exactly how well your body is aging — one visit to get a baseline and another a year later for comparison — I took all the tests in order to get a snapshot of where my body was at.
It wasn’t great.
SOME MEDICAL HISTORY:
When I was a teenager, I used to say that I hoped I’d get asthma, mono or diabetes. To me, these were diseases that offered sympathy, attention and the ability to get out of doing things without any serious consequences, like death. You get a lot of attention if you get lupus, but then you have lupus.
My wish came true when I was diagnosed with diabetes in grade 12. Unfortunately, my diabetes never moved much past a punchline. After diagnosis, I was sent to a three-day tutorial on how to manage my condition. During one discussion about meal plans and what foods I could and couldn’t eat, I started to feel overwhelmed by how much my life needed to be controlled, and how much it would change. Then I thought, “Wait, I don’t actually have to do any of this.” And I felt better instantly.
The problem with my diabetes, since I don’t have the type 1, Steel Magnoliasvariety, is that it has no immediate repercussions. If I neglect to take my insulin and my blood sugar skyrockets, I don’t feel differently. The damage is entirely done to my future self. Only, now, my 17-year-old self’s future is my 30-year-old self’s present.
That’s the reason I mention my diabetes. It’s not to add the gravitas of illness to this narrative. It’s because, as it turns out, all the doctors over the years who tried to convince me that I did, in fact, need to take my illness seriously weren’t self-righteous morons. Or at least they weren’t morons.
THE TESTS I TAKE in the basement of DeerFields are mostly standard. I give blood. I have an ultrasound. I breathe into a tube. I take a series of complicated tests on a computer that maybe aren’t complicated to other people, but they involve matching shapes and colours and remembering words. And I get a lot of answers wrong. To test my base fitness level, I’m fitted with a kind of Bane mask and I pedal as hard as I can on a stationary bicycle. Then I eat lunch. I’d mention the chef-prepared smoked pheasant, splash of corn chowder and elderberry salad, but that might be contrary to Dawn’s request.
IN THE AFTERNOON, Dr. Knipping goes over the results with me. He’s got white, close-shorn hair — in fact, the two other men who work at DeerFields have the same buzz cut, like monks devoted to healthcare. The two times I’ve met with him, he was wearing a shirt with a mandarin collar. When he smiles, it’s the wide smile of a kid getting his picture taken at a party. You could imagine a world where he was called goofy. Only he isn’t.
He tells me that one of the reasons he cares so much about aging is because he is so familiar with death. He worked as a coroner for five years. And he still works occasionally in a nearby ER. Somewhere in that crammed professional life, he found the time to be a psychologist, too. He’s proud of the work he’s done developing DeerFields, but it’s the eagerness of a researcher, the joy of someone whose passion matches his work completely.
GOD BLESS DR. KNIPPING. Over the years, I’ve had doctors try a variety of tactics with me. They’ve appealed to my sense of independence. They’ve used guilt. They’ve become belligerent. I confounded all of them. It’s like they aren’t used to someone so fully resistant to the demands of his health. Or at least they aren’t used to someone being so open about it.
But Dr. Knipping doesn’t get dragged into that. He lets my test results speak for themselves. It starts off positive. My CardioAge — which measures how well my heart and arteries are doing — is 20. In terms of blood flow, I’m 10 years younger than my driver’s license would tell you. My PulmoAge — that of my lungs — is 29, which is fine. A little better than average, but growing up Mormon will give you healthy lungs.
Then, my NeuroAge: I have the brain of a 54-year-old. “That just means you’re wise,” people tell me after I mention my results. But no. It means my cognitive function is that of a man on the far side of middle age. I have the kind of brain that will forget where the gas pedal is, who will drive slowly into a convenience store.
“Brain aging is a slow process,” reads the DeerFields literature. “As early as your mid-twenties, certain aspects of your cognitive function begin to decline in a linear fashion. You don’t notice until you tax the system… If that decline is steeper than the average person, you are more likely to have significant neurologic disease decades later…” My decline, at least according to this snapshot, is 24 years older than the average. At this rate, I’ll be senile in, what, 10 years?
The rest of the results are just as bad, though somehow less depressing. My skin (not so much appearance, but elasticity) is 11 years older than me; my immune system is 52 years old, and I have the telomeres of a 49-year-old. And while my PhysioAge® Composite — a kind of comparison of my results against data aggregated from the results of 118 men and women over three years — is 30, it doesn’t feel positive. Maybe everyone at 30 is broken.
There are other results, too, that only tangentially relate to my age, but increase my woe: my cholesterol is high, my blood sugars are too, and my testosterone is disturbingly low. Not only am I a man who is aging poorly, I’m also not much of a man.
Feeling wounded, I ask him why, if seemingly everything else in my body is falling apart sooner than it should, why my lungs and heart seem to be so fit. He tells me that the heart and lungs are sturdy. “So, they’ll stay strong for a lot longer. It’s really just that all the shit you put into your body—your energy drinks, your not taking care of your diabetes, your lack of exercise — they just haven’t gotten to them yet.”
“Your problem,” Dr. Knipping tells me, eyes wide, “is that you’ve been too healthy.” Then he talks about the regret men feel when they let their conditions — like my diabetes — take an eye or a limb. “They go two ways. It can wake them up, or they’ll just say, ‘Fuck it all,’ and go down and down.”
He swears more than you might expect. I suspect it’s because I’ve cussed some, and like a good businessman, or psychologist (mostly likely both), he’s subtly mirroring me. But the point is well taken. I still don’t feel sick, or old, but I’m certainly not well. And I can ignore it like I always have or I can wake up. “Your desire to be alive today will be the same when you’re 70 years old,” the doctor says.
It would be easy to rationalize all this away, and not only because ignorance of scientific specifics can erode confidence in all medical professionals. But because aging is aging — it’s as inevitable as winter — and whether you delay it or not, you’ll still end up cold in the end. Fighting the aging process is, I tell myself, a result of a capitalist culture obsessed with youth, sex and consumption (and the first two are about the latter, anyway). I’ll get old. So will you. And if I hadn’t gone to DeerFields, I’d get old just the same.
But, of course, that’s bullshit. Life isn’t necessarily about quantity, it’s about quality. And that’s a cliché that you can post on your Facebook wall, superimposed over a picture of some beach somewhere, but it’s also probably true. Age management is less about dying later, and more about enjoying to the fullest whatever life you’ve got.
So, what do I do, knowing that my life is getting shorter, faster?
It’s not much. I didn’t join DeerFields to avail myself of their fitness routine, personalized diet, proprietary supplements and hormonal therapy (which, I should say, I truly believe would help). I’m not an executive, and can’t afford executive healthcare. I haven’t even gone to an endocrinologist. I still don’t have a family doctor. The difference is, now I’m actually entertaining the possibility of medical supervision. And while thinking about going to see a doctor makes no difference to my pancreas, I believe this is a step, however tentative, in the right direction.
But until then, there are things I do do. I eat fewer snacks. Less fried food. The same number of energy drinks, but I remember to take my insulin more. And I wake up early, put on my shoes, and no matter how bitterly cold it is, I run.
The disease I figured I’d deal with when I was older is actually making me older right now. So I run as a way of dealing with it. My thinking — and I realize full well that my thinking can be suspect, what with how old my brain is — is that if I can at least be a better diabetic, I’ll have won a small victory over aging. It’s what’s killing me, after all: the sugar-sharpened blood that flows through my veins, damaging everything that blood touches: my eyes, my feet, my penis, my brain. If running will help take some of that sugar out of my blood, I’ll be healthier. Everything will be better.
And, yes, I feel a little heroic about my improved fitness. And, yes, I’ve lost weight. But mostly, running is my way of shouting down all the feelings of despair and failure and anger I felt driving home from the age management clinic; the ones that wake me up and push me.
I also run as punishment. I’m punishing my body for not working. For aging too soon. For letting all that sugar float around in my blood instead of using it like normal bodies do. For making me acknowledge my mortality when I had planned on ignoring it until I was a grandfather. Fuck you, body. You were always going to fail me, but you’re failing me too soon.
But punishment is also about correction. You punish your kids, not just to remind them of their wrongdoing, but so that their behaviour will change, improve. And I’m running to change my body. I’m correcting. I won’t stop time, but I’ll hopefully stop losing it.