- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2003

OMAHA, Neb. - Age is not just a number to Dr. Denham Harman. It’s an obsession. Why else would an 87-year-old man rise at 4:30 each morning, drive to the University of Nebraska Medical Center by 7 and put in an eight-hour day?

“Because I’m busy,” Dr. Harman said. “If you don’t stay busy, you die. I don’t want to die right now.”

Dr. Harman officially retired 17 years ago. He continues to work, unpaid, out of a cubbyhole office that seems beneath a man who is one of the 20th century’s most significant researchers in the field of gerontology.

“He deserves the Nobel Prize,” said Dr. Donald Ingram, acting chief of the laboratory of experimental gerontology at the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore. “He’s been nominated before, but sometimes it takes a long time for a body of work to be fully appreciated. I hope he gets it while he’s alive.”

In 1954, Dr. Harman developed what now is the most widely accepted theory on the aging process, known as the Free Radical Theory of Aging. In simple terms, the theory says a byproduct of oxygen use is adverse chemical reactions in cells. The result is aging and, ultimately, death.

The theory initially was, Dr. Harman said, “pooh-poohed and ridiculed” by the medical community.

By the 1980s, however, free radicals became part of research in cancer, cardiovascular disease and stroke. In recent years, free radicals have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

Free radicals are atoms with unpaired electrons. The radicals are produced through the body’s use of oxygen. According to Dr. Harman’s theory, radicals damage cells in an organism, causing aging. By reducing free radicals, the aging process is slowed.

Dr. Jane Potter, section chief of geriatrics and gerontology in the UNMC College of Medicine, said Dr. Harman’s theory was ahead of its time.

“There was a long lag between him saying this was important and others doing the research to prove it,” Dr. Potter said. “The fact he was the original has been lost. There’s no disagreement that he said it first. But he has been under-recognized.”

Modest by nature, Dr. Harman has focused his energies on pressing for research that leads to the enhancement of life for seniors. He is driven by a quote by 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift, who wrote: “Every man desires to live long, but no one would be old.”

To Dr. Harman, the issue is not increasing life span. He doubts life expectancy ever will exceed 85 years.

“We have reached the point where our living conditions are near optimum,” he said. “We can do all the work we want on cancer research and heart disease, but it’s not going to increase our life span. A major risk factor with those diseases is aging, and the aging process is built in.”

Dr. Harman’s work now is focused on applying the Free Radical Theory to help the elderly avoid a long period of decline before death.

“I’m talking about functional life span,” he said. “You may not play tennis anymore, but you still get around, enjoy music or whatever your hobby is. When that period is over, you just disappear. That would be the ideal.”

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide