A review of So You Want to Live Younger Longer by Dr Norman Swan

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

So you want to Live Younger Longer
By Norman Swan
July 2022, ISBN: 9780733648342, $34.99, 320 pages

Like everyone else in Australia, I have come to rely on The ABC’s Coronacast for my daily dose of trusted information about the Corona virus. Particularly during the height of Covid mayhem, Dr Norman Swan and Tegan Taylor were my daily go-to for trusted information. Their relaxed banter provided a soothing and rational island of calm, and I know I’m not the only one who relied (and continues to rely) on the show to help me make decisions about when to book in vaccination, how to isolate, mask wearing and where I should focus my worries.

In addition to my Coronacast habit which has now settled into a less fraught weekly session, I take some guilty pleasure in looking after my health. Guilty because it seems a little frivolous to be reading books ostensibly about longevity and staying young when I already know how to look after myself and could just as easily be spending that time exercising. But as you might expect, Dr Swan is the voice of rationality, and his advice is measured, clear, evidence-based, and very practical. This is a book about enjoying your life with as much vigour and health as possible by making better lifestyle choice, not about living forever through a rich-person only, ageism that requires collagen injections, placental transfusions or high colonics (even if they are the secret to Keith Richards’ longevity). Of course ageing well is a privilege. Financial security along with access to high quality food makes all the difference.  That said, I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Dr Swan debunks many expensive supplements and fancy treatments in favour of a more affordable healthy fruit and veg rich diet, solid and regular exercise, minimal recreational “substances”, and a reasonable bedtime, or as Dr Swan puts it: “#nomagichere…It’s easy to lose sight of the obvious when you get into the weeds on what helps you live longer. Don’t get mugged by reality.” (161)

As you might expect, there is plenty of delightfully geeky analysis including the latest research on of some of the wonder-treatments, fads and trends that are often peddled in the longevity/bio-hacking community. This includes such things as various forms of fasting, goji berries (which get many humorous mentions), Resveratrol (the substance my husband uses to justify his excess red wine drinking), Metformin, a range of probiotic hacks, Rapamycin, formal brain training, Keto diets, and genomic testing to name a few. Dr Swan looks at some of the longest lived humans (versus lab tests on mice) and works through what has tangible impacts on humans versus magical and wishful thinking.

In spite of the detailed medical information, the writing remains not only clear and easy to follow, but also humorous. Each section includes a funny little hashtag to sum up what’s to follow. For example, #hopespringseternal in the opening of “Which pill and why?”: 

Quick swallow: You’ve got the message by now. You and I are not fruit flies, yeast cells or mice. If we were, there’d be little cancer nd we’d live long, healthy lives because science has found stuff that works I the lab but fails in humans. Same goes for the millions if not billions of dollars that have been wasted in the wrong-headed search for a drug for Alzheimer’s disease…We’re just so much more complicated than wee animals that scurry around wheat silos. (89)

The final chapter is a particularly valuable summation of all of the things that you should be doing to maximise your well-being at different ages. For example, if you’re in your twenties you should not be smoking (“crap that was never meant to be burnt”), should not drink to excess (“to the extent that they change your mental state”), keeping your mind active with education, minimising red meat (a plant based diet is even better) and exercising daily, to name a few of the suggestions. Your stress levels might go up from reading this part if people you love are breaking some of these rules (kids, you know who you are), so be prepared to be reminded of how you cannot change the habits of people you love no matter how much you would like to. But of course it’s all eminently sensible advice, which continues through the years.  A diverse, plant based diet, keeping to a reasonable weight, exercising daily, limiting alcohol, avoiding smoking (no surprise that this is the big no-no from the get go), continuing to learn new things, and having supportive people around you are all constants through life from age 20 to 90+ that will keep you feeling as youthful and healthy as possible, won’t cost a lot of money, and will ensure a more enjoyable life. It’s a no-brainer and I know you know these things already, but it doesn’t hurt one bit to be reminded of the key basics in such an enjoyable way, and it’s quite likely you’ll save much more than the cost of the book in avoiding unnecesary supplements, slugging excess red wine, and gulping goji berries.