The Times, 5 April 2008


One of the creepiest stories in Greek myth is that of Tithonus. An ordinary man, he caught the eye of the goddess Eos. She begged the gods to grant him immortality, so she could be with him forever. But she forgot to ask for eternal youth, and in a display of petty-mindedness so spectacular that it took several millennia and my secondary school PE teacher to rival it, they didn’t offer it. So Tithonus just got older and older, until eventually, he was so wrinkled and shrunken that he turned into a cicada. Which presumably also lived forever. To my mind, the sole redeeming feature of insects is their usually swift demise, so for the rest of my childhood, I had the fear that deathless zombie bugs lived amongst us.

And it’s a story that keeps coming back to haunt me – we live longer, but no-one wants to be the shrunken, broken grasshopper man. Even if we reluctantly accept that our bodies can’t last forever, we desperately want to keep our minds intact. Which is why so many of us must have given a small cheer at the announcement this week by a research team for the Journal of Neuroinflammation that daily caffeine may protect the brain from dementia. Their research, conducted on rabbits, suggests that caffeine protects the blood-brain barrier, blocking the effects of cholesterol, which makes it leaky. Even the least scientific mind would probably guess that a leaky blood-brain barrier is a bad thing.

As with all such studies, we can’t get excited straight away. We don’t yet know how it relates to humans. The rabbits involved were given a high-cholesterol diet, which I suspect they aren’t designed for, since a rabbit’s natural diet, unless my research is terribly shoddy (and only some of it was watching Bugs Bunny), doesn’t contain much cholesterol usually. Mostly it’s carrots. Although even I, a wearer of vegetarian shoes (no, I don’t know what they eat. Bacon, probably), and general humourless stiff about animal testing, can’t deny there is a certain charm to the thought of a rabbit knocking back a triple espresso in a laboratory in North Dakota, and saying, “That’s all very well, Alan, but my carrot deadline is Tuesday.”

Every year, it seems that scientists give another piece of received wisdom a good kick – I’ve spent years being told that lovely, caffeine-filled Diet Coke would give me Alzheimer’s, because of all the aluminium in the cans. Now it turns out that, rather like when Spiderman won’t cop off with Mary-Jane to keep her out of The Green Goblin’s clutches, it was looking out for me all along. Surely the perfect balanced diet should be composed primarily of cheese and Diet Coke - this is, coincidentally, pretty much my exact diet since I was fourteen, only now there are more vegetables in it, which shows that I have grown as a person. The cheese will keep me from getting osteoporosis, after the fizzy drink has leached all the rest of the calcium from my bones. Meanwhile the caffeine will stop the cheesy cholesterol from giving me Alzheimer’s. Perfect.

So if caffeine is on the up and up, I think it must be time to re-evaluate other lifestyle choices which have previously been given a thumbs down on health grounds. First, laziness. Proportionately far more people keel over and die on a treadmill than on the sofa. Although I suppose it’s possible that people do keel over on the sofa, but because they’re already prone, no-one notices. Really, how many people do you know who’ve injured themselves running, or skiing, or climbing? Loads. And lying on the sofa? In my whole life I’ve only known one – and that was a pulled muscle caused by reaching awkwardly for some crisps.

Secondly, staying up late and having a lie-in. Getting up early was always a stupid idea. You know that horrible pounding your heart does when you’re woken from deep sleep by an alarm clock? If you don’t have an alarm clock, that doesn’t happen, ever. If you stay up too late, you don’t start having palpitations and feeling like you might cry – two common side-effects of getting up early. We’re not farmers now. Eschew the dawn.

Thirdly, in spite of their negative press, video games are better for you than real life. Personally, I like to let Mario take my risks for me. If one of us has to walk across a tightrope over a ravine, I’d rather it were him. He’s a trained plumber and he has a low centre of gravity. I, conversely, am clumsy and can’t drive a go-kart for toffee. And I like toffee. Similarly, don’t steal cars and shoot hookers. Play Grand Theft Auto instead. You will be, objectively, a better person that way.

And finally, alcohol. Red wine has long been celebrated for its health benefits. But, honestly, isn’t meths a prettier colour? I bet it’s delicious.