The Quest for Long Life

Over the past decade, as Baby Boomers have begun flooding the ranks of the AARP, science has become increasingly focused on discovering the recipe for longevity. Every week, it seems, a new study is published touting the life extending powers of antioxidants, exercise, or sleep.

By and large, the anti-aging prescriptions issued over the last 10 years have been sensible. It’s hard to take issue with the idea that eating more greens, getting more sleep, and breaking the occasional sweat promotes health. But as the eldest Boomers enter their sixties, the mania for longevity seems to be reaching a fever pitch, and the quest for long life is becoming more and more bizarre. Case in point, the hunger fad, better known as the Calorie Restriction Diet.

In the early 90s, a UCLA pathologist named Roy Walford volunteered to shut himself away with seven other bioscientists in a hermetically sealed terrarium in the Arizona desert for two years. Why? It’s unclear. (My suspicion: Too many science fiction novels.) The point here is that the group quickly discovered that the “self-sustaining” ecosystem they’d engineered to provide for their nutritional needs wasn’t quite up to par. They were on the verge of abandoning the experiment when Walford proposed a solution.

He happened to be tracking some research on the impact of calorie restriction and was intrigued by the discovery that limiting food intake improved health and extended the life spans of species as varied as dogs, worms, and spiders. Walford suggested they use their time in the biosphere to find out if the same could be said for humans. The group spent the next two years eating just enough to stave off starvation. When they emerged, “tests proved them healthier in nearly every nutritionally relevant respect than when they’d gone in.” (The Fast Supper)

Walford was so convinced by the results that he later published what would become the bible of the Calorie Restriction Movement, Beyond the 120-Year Diet: How to Double Your Vital Years. His recipe for long life is simple in theory and punishing in practice. All you need to do is make sure you eat between 20 and 40 percent fewer calories than the recommended amount.

According to dietary experts, a woman my size should eat around 2000 calories per day to maintain a healthy weight. If I was really intent on living longer, I’d have to reduce my daily calorie intake to 1200. That may look like a fair amount on paper, but consider this: A dinner consisting of a six-ounce steak, a Cesar salad, and two glasses of wine would net roughly 1100 calories. If I splurged and enjoyed a CafĂ© au Lait with skim milk (110 calories) for dessert, I’d blow my entire wad. Of course, strict adherents of the Walford doctrine would never dream of eating anything so decadent. Instead, they opt for a steady trickle of foods like Quorn, kale, and carrots. Yummy!

Now, let’s set aside for the moment the fact that calorie deprivation has not been scientifically proven to extend human life. Advocates of the Calorie Restriction regimen argue that the benefits of the diet have been amply demonstrated in animals. Let’s say that’s true. The question remains: Is a life of such extreme deprivation worth living? Sure, you might get five or ten extra years, but the trade off is you’re required to live like a monk. No more drinks after work; no more dinner parties; no more birthday cake. Under these conditions, I’m guessing those extra years you’d earned would feel long indeed.

But, hey, maybe I’m just a glutton. Luckily, there’s a new scientific finding tailor-made for people like me, who are unwilling to relinquish the small pleasures in the name of longevity. According to a recent article in SEED, I don’t need to restrict my food intake to live to a ripe old age, because I can achieve the same results by . . . freezing my ass off. Well, okay, mice can. And that’s good enough for me.

. . . scientists knew that body temperature and aging were linked in reptiles and other cold-blooded animals. They also knew that the lifespan of mammals, or warm-blooded creatures, could be extended by reducing the number of calories they consume, which in turn lowers the body temperature by slowing down the metabolism.

[Researchers at Scripps University] carried out a study to determine whether calorie reduction was indeed responsible for extending animals’ life, with a lowering of the body temperature being a secondary effect, or whether the latter was actually the cause of the increased longevity.

They found that “lowering the body temperature of mice without limiting the amount of food they consume can prolong their life by up to 20 percent for females and 12 percent for males.”

Well, thank god. No starvation for me. I’ll just walk around with my temperature controlled suit set to a bracing 33 degrees Fahrenheit, enjoying my pasta and fois grais, and dreaming of all those frigid years I have to look forward to.