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Preventing Aging

No Magic Formula Will Get You to 100

Several years ago, a geologist named Anatoli Brouchkov harvested some bacteria that had survived in the Arctic permafrost for eons. When the bacteria were injected into female mice, the compound seemed to extend their youth. Though Dr. Brouchkov is neither female nor a mouse, he wondered whether it could slow down his own aging—so he ate some of it.
Many scientists experiment on themselves, but to put a prehistoric microbe into your mouth seemed like a terrible idea to me. But these are the lengths to which longevity scientists will go.
In the field of anti-aging and longevity research, self-experiments are all the rage. Valter Longo, director of the University of Southern California Longevity Institute undertakes multiday fasts. Other scientists are dosing themselves with the diabetes drug metformin, believing it may help protect their cells from wear and tear. Charles Brenner, a biochemist, has drunk milk laced with high doses of nicotinamide riboside, a type of Vitamin B that might defend against aging.
And there are many people imitating them. The longevity scientists have their own fan bases—groupies and wannabes trying to replicate these strange laboratory regimens at home. There are online forums devoted to Dr. Brenner’s research on which people share data on how the vitamin affects everything from their blood pressure to their poop. Dr. Longo’s dietary program, ProLon, sells kits with teeny-weeny meals.
It seems that a large number of people who come into my store are adding a new supplement to their diet or subtracting a food group or component like gluten. They all want the same thing; to believe they have the power to stave off the ravages of old age. Rather than listen to a very healthy, fit, athletic 75 year like myself who preaches moderation in all areas, they are looking for an easy shortcut that does not involve exercise and a very healthy diet.
To prove my point I decided to hunt through the obituary pages for dead longevity experts so that I could find out if they were actually successful. Did their experiments work to the extent that they were able to reach that magic age of 100? What I learned was enough to make you choke on your keto-coconut-oil coffee.
Let’s start in the 1930’s when an American nutritionist named Clive Mckay designed a low-calorie diet for his lab rats at Cornell that gave them all the nutrients they needed but kept them as thin as supermodels. The diet seemed to act like a time machine, and Dr. McKay’s hungry rats maintained their dapper, glossy coats of fur and frisked about their cages; their well-fed counterparts slowly shuffled about in shabby coats and died. At one point Dr. McKay pronounced that he had two male white rats that were the equivalent in age to men more than 130 years old because of his calorie restriction diet.
Dr.McKay applied his theories to himself, nibbling on morsels from his own garden. But he didn’t make it close to 130. Though trim and athletic, he had two strokes and died at 69.
Over the decades that followed, research teams would repeat his experiments and confirm that calorie restriction almost always prolonged the lives of lab animals. One of the most prominent of these scientist, Roy Walford, showed that a strict diet could double the lifespan of mice. Dr. Walford himself stuck to a 1600 calorie-a-day diet. In the 1980’s he wrote: “The 120 Year Diet” and then followed it up with even more misery and self-denial in “Beyond the 120 Year Diet.” He became a cult figure to thousands of CRONies (“calorie restriction with optimal nutrition” enthusiasts) who hoped to live past 100. But he himself died of A.L.S., or Lou Gehrig’s disease at age 79.
Some of the biggest names in dieting, organic agriculture and preventative medicine died at surprisingly young ages. The wild-foods enthusiast Euell Gibbons was far ahead of his time in his advocacy of a diverse plant diet—but he died at age 64 of an aortic aneurism. (He had been born with a genetic disorder that predisposed him to heart problems.) The nutritionist Adelle Davis helped to wake millions of people to the dangers of refined foods like white bread but she died of cancer at 70. Nathan Pritkin, one of the foremost champions of low-fat diets, died at 69, nearly the same age as Dr. Robert Atkins, who believed in the opposite regimen.
Then there is Jerome Rodale, founder of the publishing empire dedicated to health. In 1971, Dick Cavett invited Mr. Rodale onto his TV show after reading a New York Times Magazine article that called him “the guru of the organic food cult.” Mr. Rodale, 72 took his chair next to Mr. Cavett, proclaimed that he would live to be a 100, and then made a snoring sound and died. (The episode never aired.)
There are obviously many things you can do to improve your health. Give up cigarettes and start walking—that kind of common-sense lifestyle redo can deliver good results. But there are diminishing returns. Even if you do everything right there are circumstances we cannot control like bad genes, accidents or exposure to smog and pesticides. Very often it’s the decisions we make as a collective that matter more than any choice we make on our own.
Beginning in the 1970’s, activists and governments collaborated to outlaw leaded gasoline worldwide and to reduce other sources of lead exposure. It is one of the best “lifestyle” choices we human beings have ever made. Average lead levels in our bodies dropped by more than 80 per cent—a huge health benefit, because lead exposure can increase the risk of heart disease, kidney disease and even dementia.
Unfortunately, we have yet to tame many other pollutants, like the particular matter spewed by diesel engines and coal plants. And the damage from dirty air begins long before any of us can make our own health choices. A study released in January, for instance, suggests that babies exposed to high levels of air pollutants in the womb may be at risk of premature aging.
Returning to Dr. Brenner’s research, he agreed that the decisions we make collectively might be the most important ones while emphasizing that the point of scientific self-experimentation should not be to live longer but to learn.
When he drank that Vitamin –B-laced milk, he did it to find out whether the compound could be absorbed through the stomach. He then sat through a series of lab meetings with a rubber tube hanging off his arm so that his colleagues could collect his blood. The blood tests showed that the drink had increased his levels of a molecule that is thought to work like an ignition key to turn on mechanisms that prevent disease. However, it’s an open question whether Dr. Brenner’s compound could actually affect human aging and life span. That will require human testing on hundreds of thousands of people.
In the meantime, it’s the things we tend to ignore, like our exposure to pollution that will affect us far more than the things we obsess about, like whether to eat gluten.
That’s the problem with picking a very narrow choice of change in which we pursue, individually and alone, our own path to health. The greatest gains in longevity have occurred not because of personal choices but because of public sanitation, clean water and the control of infectious diseases. According to Dr. Thomas Frieden, the former director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, “since 1900 the average life span in the United States has increased by more than 30 years; 25 years of this gain have been attributed to public health advances.”
That’s why we should all fight for other people’s health. Your decisions can affect when I die, and vice versa.
The founder of Bulletproof Coffee recently bragged that he hopes to live to age 180, in part by sipping one of his company’s signature drinks made with “Brain Octane Oil.” But aging isn’t some kind of competitive sport you play against your peers. When it comes to staying alive, we’re all in it together. [print_link]