Book Review: Life Extension: A Practical Scientific Approach (1982)

March 20, 2003
Authors: Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw
Publisher:Warner Books, New York, N.Y.
Reviewed by: Stephen Barrett, M.D.

The book’s central premise is that animal experiments are now adaptable to humans who want to live to the age of 150. The authors, who call themselves “research scientists,” have been experimenting on themselves since 1968. They would like you to believe that they can out-think most doctors. Their “Current Personal Experimental Life Extension Formula” contains more than 30 food supplements and prescription drugs. But it appears with the warning: “NOT RECOMMENDED FOR ANYONE OTHER THAN OURSELVES.” The book’s introduction contains a two-page DISCLAIMER; and CAUTIONS and WARNINGS appear throughout the text.

What do the authors recommend? First, a complete medical examination with more than 50 laboratory tests. Since this requires the services of a physician sympathetic to the book’s philosophy, advice is included on how to approach a doctor:

Don’t expect your doctor to know the life extension uses of prescription drugs approved for other uses or to be familiar with the research papers you may show him. . . . Most doctors are not scientists. With the information you have collected, however, you can demonstrate that . . . you intend to use the drugs in a responsible manner.

How? The authors list nine rules for dose determination. “Often a good way to find your proper dose,” says rule 5, “is to continue increasing the dose slowly until you reach an unacceptable level of the type of harmless and reversible side effects you can get with megadoses of these low toxicity nutrients. . . . Reduce the dosage somewhat when you reach that point.” (Can the authors guarantee that you won’t experience irreversible side effects?)

What would the overall program cost? My guess is between $1,000 and $2,000 a year (plus countless hours of study), but the authors give no estimates. A letter in People magazine states that the authors underwent almost 1,000 laboratory tests over a 14-year period. The book suggests that if your current physician balks at the thought of super-vising such a program, “it really pays to look around and make ceaseless inquiries until you find the help you need.” (Do you think any sane doctor would agree?)

What of the book’s science? Hundreds of pages are filled with statements supposedly based upon scientific literature. References are given for each chapter, but most of the statements in the text are not labeled so readers can tell which references pertain to which statements. (It also makes checking upon the authors more difficult). However, if the discussion of nutrients and cancer is any indication, the book’s presentation of experimental data is biased and uncritical. On page 89, the authors state that “Vitamin C in supplements of 10 grams per day has been reported [by Linus Pauling and Ewan Cameron] to extend life spans of terminal cancer patients . . . by an average of over four times.” But the fact that the Pauling/ Cameron study was invalid because its controls were not randomized is not mentioned

The authors also claim that vitamin E supplements can prevent cancer (no reference given), and that a 14-supplement combination can make cigarette smoking much safer.

The book contains 50 pages of “case his-tories,” including the alleged cure of a balky stud horse by B-vitamins and a man who was able to cut his daily intake of distilled liquor from two pints to one pint by taking supplements as advised by Pearson and Shaw. As further testimonial, the book contains 12 full-page photos of the authors.

The authors state in the book’s introduction, “We are definitely not interested in being cult leaders. We want people to think for themselves and check our sources, not to be true believers who worship our ideas as a religion.” (Should this be translated: “If anything goes wrong, don’t blame us?”)

Will Pearson and Shaw launch a new cult? (Stay tuned!) An ad from Warner Books attributes much of the book’s popularity to 12 appearances on the Merv Griffin Show. The book is probably complicated enough that most buyers will not actually finish reading it or be able to follow its directions in detail. However, some segments of the health food industry attribute a “surge in sales of antioxidants, moisturizers and anti-aging type products” to the book. No Life Extension Cookbook has yet been announced, but two shorter and less technical “how-to” volumes are scheduled for publication in 1984.

“How successful have we been in slowing or reversing our own aging?” the authors ask. “We really don’t know how long we might live because tests capable of providing this information have not yet been devised. . . We can say on the basis of the clinical tests we’ve taken, we do not seem to have harmed ourselves.”

The subtitle of Life Extension is “A Practical Scientific Approach.” In my opinion, it is neither practical nor scientific.


This review originally appeared in the November/December 1983 issue of ACSH News & Views, published by the American Council on Science and Health.

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This page was posted on March 20, 2003.