Want to live past the hundred-year mark with a level of health that would tint a current fifty-year-old with envy?
Thanks to modern science that goal becomes more attainable with each passing day. But where previous advances in the pursuit of immortality have centered on the ways in which science can invent our way out of our own death, recent efforts have taken another path altogether. Increasingly, it seems, longevity may be found in the food we eat, but perhaps not in the way you’re thinking.
Scientific Advances in Longevity
The findings in question are intriguing not only because they suggest the key to long life may be closer than previously imagined, but also that the key to long health may be just as attainable. And let’s be real, no one wants to live to a ripe age unless we can stave off the over-ripening that typically follows. Grapes are delicious, but raisins are only enjoyable when they’re anthropomorphized and singing R & B.
Before we dive into the modern take on this age-old pursuit, let’s slap a caveat on what we’re about to discuss. Though the field of longevity science is growing each year, it is still mostly confined to animal studies which may not translate to humans. I’d add that even human studies should be viewed with skepticism as they can easily yield bizarre conclusions. For example, here’s a study showing that eating chocolate can help you win a Nobel prize. And here’s a study into the scientific basis of being “cool.” Take it from me, nothing says cool like studying it in a lab. Or sarcastically making fun of scientists for that matter.
Okay, so now that the grains of salt have been distributed to the crowd, what do food-related longevity studies reveal? First of all, there are plenty of ways in which the straightforward intake of nutrients helps us maximize our lifespan. For instance, studies have shown that high consumption rates of nuts, fruits & veggies, and whole grains can help stave off death. Of course, most of us probably already knew there was a reason we call these things “health food.” These are findings I might file under the “no duh” section of my personal archives.
The more surprising findings, and the ones that have frankly sparked my own imagination with dreams of living into the age of robot butlers and flying cars, center on another topic: caloric restriction. I’m not talking about the run of the mill nutritional advice to go on a diet to maintain a healthy weight, I’m talking about a permanent reduction in the amount of food you eat. While this practice has previously been shown to drastically increase the lifespan of mice, scientists have recently made waves by publishing a study showing the first evidence that this can work with primates as well.
The study in question was conducted on lemurs and showed that when their caloric intake was reduced by 30%, the lemurs’ median lifespans rose by 50%. Not only did these animals live longer, they lived healthier. Rates of age-related diseases such as cancer and nephritis plummeted in the calorically restricted groups. The restricted lemurs even looked healthier, with photos of the elderly test group presenting as spry and bright-eyed whippersnappers. The photos of the control group would be better used as fodder for some sort of lemur tabloid exposé on how poorly our favorite lemur stars have aged.
Another eating technique that is attracting interest in the world of longevity research is intermittent fasting (IF). This practice involves interspersed periods of fasting in one’s eating schedule. A popular method centers on eating for only an eight-hour window during each day. Preliminary studies show that IF may help fight a myriad of diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. There are also some in the fitness community who swear by it as a training method for building muscles and losing fat.
I’ve actually experimented with IF myself, though I must admit my interest was less in disease prevention and more based on the recommendation of Mr. Muscles himself, Terry Crews. However, my dreams of joining the Muscles family were dashed when I was forced to come to terms with the actual logistics of limiting my eating to an eight-hour section of the day. Waking up at 7 am, I was all optimism and aphorisms about how energetic I felt. But when I was still operating on an empty stomach at noon, I felt more like a cautionary tale from a Snickers commercial.
Like the age-old story of the fountain of youth, research into longevity has spawned a gold rush of people hoping to avail themselves of the science’s splashier claims. Perhaps there is nowhere where this is more noticeable than on the internet. While it would be unfair to say that the online communities devoted to longevity are devoid of science, I certainly wouldn’t characterize them as devoid of pseudo-science either.
These communities, such as crsociety.org or the longevity subreddit, seem to thrive under a single unifying ethos. If they can latch on to as many promising leads as possible when it comes to extending life, then they’ll have more time down the line to incorporate the next wave of even more promising science. The explicit goal of many is to kick the can down the road until death can be “cured” once and for all. Often the methods don’t stop at healthy eating or even more extreme dietary practices. Those on the bleeding edge of this brand of self-experimentation are now turning their eyes toward unregulated drugs, gene therapies, and more.
I’d say the poster child for this kind of all-out war on aging would be a man by the name of Aubrey DeGrey, a biomedical gerontologist (anti-aging researcher) who has popped up in all manners of documentaries and TED talks on the topic of immortality. It’s perhaps unfair of me to pick on DeGrey, as he looks exactly how you’d picture an eccentric scientist obsessed with defeating death, but the man sure does have a proclivity for putting his quirks on display. In a 2014 documentary, “The Immortalists,” DeGrey picnics nude with his wife and discusses a variety of his preferred alternative sex practices. I applaud the candor though it doesn’t exactly instill a sense of authority once he moves on to trying to convince us that immortality is just around the corner. I suppose in the year 2462, when DeGrey will undoubtedly still be alive, everyone will have forgotten about the naked picnicking business, so who’ll be laughing then?
Ultimately, though the ideas of DeGrey and his army of internet-dwelling supporters are intriguing, they can’t help but lead me to two questions. Just how much are we willing to sacrifice in order to live longer? And how much longer do we really want to live? To the former, I’ve heard it said that methods such as calorie restriction result in such a drop in quality of life as to make it not worth living. I’m not in that camp, but okay, I can empathize. Inextricably paired with the idea of lifespan is its cousin, healthspan, and it’s likely up to our personal taste as to how we define that term. If subdividing salads and watered-down green juices sounds like hell, then, by all means, leave it by the wayside.
As for the second question, who can really say. It’s easy to aim for a round number like 150 or 200 if there are more than a hundred years between you and that finish line. But if you ask for a planned expiration date from someone who’s healthy at 149, their answer may differ. Thankfully, what science is providing us, at least in its infant form, is the option to push our natural life to its upper limits. We’re still living in a reality where healthy diet and exercise are our best deterrents to the reaper. But, it’s probable that the foreseeable future will provide us with truly actionable ways in which we can live to lengths previously unimagined. So it’s probably best for each of us to start thinking about the above questions now.
Personally, it’s easy for me to dabble with the practice of intermittent fasting when it’s being promoted by the guy from the Old Spice commercials. But if science were really able to provide an end to death, I’m not sure how I’d feel. The idea of death is so tied to our conception of life, that any success in conquering it would almost definitely be cause for some deep soul searching. I suppose, in the end, it’s a question for an older, wiser me. Increasingly, it seems older may be in the cards. As for wiser, the jury’s still out.