Cannibalism, Sandwiches, and the Secret of Eternal Life

mice parabiosis

Image Credit: Michael J. Conboy, Irina M. Conboy and Thomas A. Rando. Heterochronic parabiosis: historical perspective and methodological considerations for studies of aging and longevity. Aging Cell (2013) 12, pp 525-530.

From the creepy world of science-not-fiction, cannibalism made its way into The New York Times this week.

Carl Zimmer reported that parabiosis experiments from the ‘50s have been revived. An old mouse’s flank was sliced open and sutured to a young mouse, binding the pair like conjoined twins. As they healed, their arteries and veins grew together, allowing their blood to mingle. Since then, scientists have shown that young blood switches on stem cells in old mice to improve their memories, heart- and skeletal-muscle health, and liver function.

These experiments allowed old mice to feed off the rejuvenating factors (GDF11) in the blood of their young counterparts. The consequence? Accelerated aging in the young mice.


The X-Files immediately sprang to mind, both an episode concerning the youth-preserving effects of cannibalism and the movie about body-transplants to keep an old brain alive. Not far behind were the classic science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, which features a woman with two heads, and the 1610 legend of Countess Erzebet Bathory, who bathoried in the blood of virgins to retain her youthful appearance.

As gruesome as all this parabiosis sounds, it is, nevertheless, a common occurrence in half of American households. It just happens in reverse and we call it parenting.

When children feed off their parents to facilitate their own maturation (and consequently accelerate their parents’ aging), we call it morning sickness. And then we call it breastfeeding. And then we call it driving, paying, waiting, and graying.

We think it’s normal and most of us who do it, like it. At least some of the time.

Sandwich Generation

In my case, my daughter bathed in my hormones, which plunged after her birth, leaving me vocabulary-vacant. Permanently.

“Look, there’s a. . . .”


“On the. . . .”

“Mouse? Wall?” offers my daughter.

It’s a difficult thing for a writer to lose immediate access to language. “My daughter stole my vocabulary,” I tell people in tones of great affection for said child.

She lost her first tooth last week.

My grandmother lost ten. She was eating supper with my sister when her thirty-year-old implants dropped onto the plate.

“We went to the dentist,” wrote Mom, “and he said there’s nothing that can be done. Dentures aren’t an option for dementia patients and decay makes it impossible to put the implants back. She has a couple of teeth on one side and a couple on the other, so it’ll be soft foods from now on.”

Nobody suggested they bathe Grammy’s gums in my mother’s blood, GDF11, or anything else. Yet it’s my mother’s and sister’s time, patience, and effort with the blender (and the cleanup) that will keep Grammy going.

It’s hard caring for an aging parent, who may or may not remember you; receiving the loss of personality in one so close; sorting through the accumulated artifacts of a lifetime; letting go of the hope that you will ever be parented again.

My daughter put her tooth under her pillow and “the tooth-fairy,” not only left her a dollar, but successfully followed her kid-print instructions to place the tooth in our silver, keepsake box. Losing a tooth is a sign of growth in a child. It’s a sign of impending death in an elder.

Wine of Life

Until Easter, my pew-mate at church was also caring for her 90-year-old father. “With all the falls, doctor’s appointments, lab tests, rehab facilities, and relational needs, it’s like a full-time job,” she told me, “but I wouldn’t have it any other way! It’s the sort of thing a daughter should do. It’s my duty and it’s good.”

“I am the vine. You are the branches,” said Jesus before he bathed us in the rejuvenating factors of his crucifixion.

“Whoever abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit. As the Father loves me, so I love you. If you keep my commandment, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and abide in his love. This is my commandment, that you love each other as I love you. Greater love has no one than that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:5, 9, 10, 12–13).

We servants are not greater than our master (15:20), so we bathe one another in rejuvenating factors, the consequence of which is often accelerated proximity to impending death. On the other hand, if the vinedresser grafts us to Jesus, then our sap is mingled with the master’s, and we drink the secret of eternal life.


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