Can Dietary Changes Extend Your Life?

The following excerpt is from the new book Cracking the Aging Code: The New Science Of Growing Old And What It Means For Staying Young, by Josh Mitteldorf, Ph.D., and Dorion Sagan (Flatiron Books, 2017).


The realization that aging is self-imposed, something your body is doing to itself on purpose, yields a new perspective on health maintenance and longevity. There are things we can do to add years to our lives and things we can do to be healthier in the present, and fortunately for us, these are mostly the same things. A program for life extension is likely to make you feel better in the present and even help you get sick less frequently.

Much of what I have to recommend for self-care is already standard medical advice. Exercise, weight loss, and a daily aspirin or ibuprofen are among the best things you can do for yourself, and I’m sure you didn’t hear that first from me. But there is also something new in our program to cheat the Black Queen. The most difficult conceptual leap I ask of you is to question all reverence for the natural. I grew up with the counterculture and celebrated the first Earth Day when I was a college student. Culturally and socially, I feel at home with the crunchy granola crowd, so imagine a lilt of sadness in my voice as I tell you that “natural” has little to offer for life extension.

Substances that have been found to lower mortality rates in humans are anti-inflammatories (such as aspirin and ibuprofen), vitamin D, and the diabetes drug metformin (Glucophage). Fish oil and turmeric are natural anti-inflammatories that have been associated with protection from heart disease, stroke, and dementia. Substances that increase life span when fed to rodents include metformin, melatonin, and deprenyl (Selegiline). Rapamycin is the most recent and most powerful of the drugs that extend life span in mice, but it is likely to leave us vulnerable to a lot of infectious diseases, and I don’t recommend it.

Vitamin D is in a class by itself. High blood levels of vitamin D are associated with lower risk of cancer and infectious diseases, and no one really understands why.

Telomerase activation—the turning on of the genes to resume production of this biologically rationed enzyme needed for sustained cellular reproduction—is a promising idea for the future, but what is available now is not very effective. Still, it might be worth adding to your regimen.

A low-carb diet coupled with periods of intermittent fasting provides the easiest way to fool the body into thinking it is getting less nourishment than you are actually eating, with likely benefits for health and longevity.

People who are happy, passionate about their work, and engaged daily with friends and family live a lot longer than people who are depressed and isolated. Share your gifts with others and you will have a long and satisfying life. This is no small thing.

Deconstructing the “Natural”

Most of us can’t remember a time before the meta-marketing phenomenon of “natural.” But fifty years ago, technology was king, and we had no compunctions about improving on nature. In the 1950s, tonsils were ripped from the throats of small children because they had a tendency to turn red during laryngeal infections, so doctors thought nature had made a mistake. In the 1950s, Dr. Spock had to break with standard medical advice to recommend breast- feeding over infant formula. And don’t forget that Wonder Bread helped build strong bodies twelve ways. For half a century, we have been told about natural foods, cosmetics, soaps, herbal remedies, and even items of clothing. Natural = healthy. The medical establishment—much to its credit—has learned to respect the body and work with it to promote natural healing, rather than rush to fix what ain’t broke. Today, natural treatments for every disease are often presumed to be preferable whenever such are available.

So far so good, but it takes some reflection for us to take the next step. We must acclimate to a different reality about aging: natural diets, herbs, and remedies are unlikely to slow the aging process.

This book has argued that aging is not a bug in evolution’s program but a design feature that is naturally selected in its own right. Aging is “natural” in the deepest sense, that it is a product of evolution, built into our genes. At root, the appeal of the natural comes from faith in evolution—what is natural is part of the environment in which humans and our ancestors evolved; hence we are presumed to be well adapted to it. If natural foods are better for us, it is because they are the foods that evolution has equipped our bodies to work with. (Follow this logic a step further and you reach the “paleo diets” that try to mirror ancestral food choices.) Natural selection has not prepared us for the pace of life in the jet age or for breathing smog or drinking Coca-Cola; hence many of the complaints of modern life may be attributed to a mismatch between the life we are living and the life for which evolution has prepared us. And indeed, it is likely true that many of our ailments are products of modernity: lung cancer from cigarettes and urban smog, metabolic syndrome (increased fat, blood pressure, blood sugar, and other factors leading to type 2 diabetes) from junk food, nervous disorders from overstimulation, and depression from living in a fragmented and disconnected society.

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