A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How can I avoid getting old?

April 3, 2009

Dear Cecil:

With modern medicine and hygiene and diet, we've extended life expectancy far beyond what it's ever been. Yet we all still get old and die. Few make it past 80 or 90 years, and almost nobody makes it past 100. Is there any real hope of something that could allow humans to stop or slow the aging process?

Cecil replies:

My initial reply was: Want to stop aging? Move to the developing world, where they've got the problem licked. With frequent war, famine, and disease, getting old isn't an issue for vast swaths of the population. However, on reading your note more carefully, I see your beef about aging is that it makes you die, meaning early death probably isn't the strategy for you. So instead I give you Cecil's Guaranteed Longevity Plan. We'll start with the easy steps and work up.

Stop thinking. I'm sure you remember Molly Ivins's remark about a Texas politician (no, not the one you’re thinking of): "If his IQ slips any lower, we'll have to water him twice a day." That guy was onto something. The chief killer of higher life forms such as ourselves is, no kidding, a brain. As I wrote years ago, living things lacking a central nervous system, notably trees, have been known to survive for thousands of years. Admittedly, judging from the examples we have — notably some barely-hanging-on pines in the California desert — so-called Methuselah trees lead pretty meager existences and probably long for the exciting life of pond scum. And yes, it's hard to imagine how humans might manage without brains. But if you've watched many financial shows on cable, you know it can be done.

Drink. OK, you've heard this before and figured it was a research fluke. Maybe not. A good-size body of research suggests one or two drinks a day can reduce your risk of death from all causes, especially heart disease and stroke. Better yet, toss back those drinks as part of a Mediterranean diet. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, ingesting an abundance of vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, and cereals; plenty of olive oil; moderate amounts of fish; not too much dairy; only a little red meat; and a glass or two of wine at meals correlated with a huge drop in death rate among participants in a 2003 study. Needless to say, your basic barfly diet (beer, maybe some peanuts) boasts no such results.

Sleep right. A six-year study of 1.1 million adults found that those sleeping seven hours a night had the lowest chance of dying. With less than six or more than eight hours per night, your mortality risk starts climbing. Too little sleep I can see being a problem, but what's so bad about too much? So far, nobody knows.

Eat less. Maybe you've heard this one too: Animals on calorie restriction (CR) diets live longer. Scientists first noticed this when studying rats in the 1930s and later found the same thing with critters ranging from fruit flies to cows. Depending on the level of CR, life span in animals has been increased by more than 50 percent. Caveats: (1) can't skip essential nutrients, (2) exercise is important, and (3) the animal's weight must remain stable.

Will CR work in humans? Not as dramatically, it seems, and we don't have conclusive proof, but probably yes. The big benefit: a healthier heart. A six-year study in which participants downed half the usual calories found major improvements in cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure. If cutting back that much sounds too drastic, consider this. Adult residents of Okinawa, Japan, consume 20 percent fewer calories than other Japanese and have much lower rates of death from stroke, heart disease, and cancer and better health overall. That doesn't mean they live forever — Okinawans on average survive four years longer than Americans. (Some of that may be due to genetics.) Most estimates of life expectancy gains from CR give you ten years at most. Drawbacks include irritability, less muscle, and malnutrition if you're not careful. CR apparently works best when begun young, with less benefit the later you start. But come on. Are you going to turn down an extra ten years? An extra four? One?

Not ready for extreme fasting? Some tout alternative schemes. The EOD, or "every other day,” method, which involves a day of fasting followed by a day of double calories, seems to work as well as CR — for mice. A human friend who tried it says he lost a lot of weight (two pounds a week), but then his heart started skipping beats so he quit. Here's a plan I like better: one meal a day plus some noshing. Will you live to 150? Doubt it, but based on my limited sample (one), you'll weigh what you did in high school and be mistaken for five years younger than you are.

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References

Everitt, Arthur V. and Le Couteur, David G. “Life Extension by Calorie Restriction in Humans.” Annual New York Academy of Sciences 1114 (2007): 428–433.

Fontana, Luigi, et al. “Long-term calorie restriction is highly effective in reducing the risk for atherosclerosis in humans.” PNAS 101.17 (2004): 6659-6663.

Grandner, Michael A. and Drummond, Sean P.A. “Who are the long sleepers? Towards an understanding of the mortality relationship.” Sleep Medicine Reviews 11 (2007): 341–360.

Heilbronn, Leonie K. and Ravussin, Eric. “Calorie restriction and aging: review of the literature and implications for studies in humans.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 78 (2003): 361–369.

Hursting, Stephen D. et al. “Calorie Restriction, Aging, and Cancer Prevention: Mechanisms of Action and Applicability to Humans.” Annual Review of Medicine 54 (2003): 131–152.

Johnson, James B. et al. “Alternate day calorie restriction improves clinical findings and reduces markers of oxidative stress and inflammation in overweight adults with moderate asthma.” Free Radical Biology and Medicine 42 (2007): 665–674.

Kripke, Daniel F. et al. “Mortality associated with sleep duration and insomnia.” Archives of General Psychiatry Vol. 59 (2002): 131-136.

Martin, Bronwen et al. “Caloric restriction and intermittent fasting: Two potential diets for successful brain aging.” Ageing Research Reviews 5 (2006): 332–353.

Speakman, John R. and Hambly, Catherine. “Starving for Life: What Animal Studies Can and Cannot Tell Us about the Use of Caloric Restriction to Prolong Human Lifespan.” The Journal of Nutrition
Symposium: Caloric Restriction and Delayed Biological Aging in Humans
(2007):1078-1086.

Stote, Kim S. et al. “A controlled trial of reduced meal frequency without caloric restriction in healthy, normal-weight, middle-aged adults.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 85 (2007): 981– 988.

Willcox, D. Craig et al. “Caloric restriction and human longevity: what can we learn from the Okinawans?” Biogerontology 7 (2006): 173–177.

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