Trying to beat the game of life
Live a life without frailty and disease, and enjoy lasting youth, both physical and mental. Purveyors of longevity have been cashing in on that promise for centuries -- never mind that not one of the people prescribing a life-extension plan has ever delivered one that worked.
“Longevity gurus share one characteristic,” says Jay Olshansky, author of “The Quest for Immortality: Science at the Frontiers of Aging” and a professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health. “Most are dead. And they all died at about the same age and of the same causes as the rest of the population.”
Here’s a look back at some of the folks who have influenced American views of longevity and related behavior over the last 100 years -- and what our aging experts have to say about their approaches.
A food faddist with training, Adelle Davis caught the ear of America with nutrition advice that ranged from sound to harmful. She criticized the food industry for producing poor quality, over-processed and sometimes unsafe food. She also proclaimed that the right amounts of minerals and vitamins could prevent and cure almost every disease and ailment.
She studied nutrition at UC Berkeley, and received a master’s degree in biochemistry from USC in 1938. She wrote several books on how to live a long and healthy life, which sold upward of 10 million copies in the 1960s and 1970s, including “Let’s Get Well” and “Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit.” (1970). Physicians who later investigated her work found that her cited references often bore no support for the claims she made.
She often said she never saw anyone get cancer who drank a quart of milk a day, as she did. She died of bone cancer at age 70.
The verdict: What Davis did right was to help make the public more aware of the nutritional quality and safety of the food they buy. That message has had a lasting influence, said Miriam Nelson, director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition, and associate professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University. “She was really off target, however, by prescribing what vitamins and minerals to take for various problems. That advice was at times harmful, and misconstrued nutrition and took the focus off whole, real food, where it belongs.”
Davis left behind a large, devoted and misinformed following.
1914 - **
The father of fitness, Jack LaLanne advocated exercise and weight training long before they were in vogue. He was among the first to encourage women to lift weights -- and to dispel the misconception that it would make them look masculine. He opened his first health spa, in Oakland, in 1936, and later had more than 200 health clubs. For 34 years, from 1951 to 1985, he hosted “The Jack LaLanne Show,” a popular TV fitness show that aired throughout the United States and Canada.
At age 42, he set a Guinness world record for fastest completion of of 1,000 push-ups (23 minutes). At age 60, he swam from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf while handcuffed, shackled and towing a 1,000-pound boat.
He has defined age as not being able to do things you used to, saying people can ward off age, reverse it and prolong life through exercise. If exercise can help you do things you haven’t been able to do in 10 years, it’s rejuvenating, he says. His longevity advice boils down to weight training, aerobic activity, plus a good diet that includes a lot of fruits and vegetables. His book “Revitalize Your Life” touts his “secrets” to reversing aging and living longer, and remains a top seller in its genre. “Live Young Forever,” which is due out in September, promises “12 Steps to Optimum Fitness, Health and Longevity.”
Today, at 94, LaLanne still works out two hours a day lifting weights and swimming.
The verdict: “I love Jack LaLanne,” says Tom Perls, a geriatrician and director of the New England Centenarian Study, “he’s living proof of the saying: ‘The older you get, the healthier you’ve been.’ ”
Adds Olshansky: “He was way ahead of his time. . . . Decades ago, he was onto the most important ways we can influence aging, by exercising and eating fruits and vegetables.”
After being diagnosed with heart disease in the 1950s, Nathan Pritikin, an engineer, got this advice from his doctor: Take it easy, don’t overexert yourself and keep eating the American diet of eggs, beef and the like.
He didn’t buy it. Instead, he began studying cultures that had low rates of heart disease -- and created his own diet. The resulting Pritikin Program advocated regular exercise and a low-fat, high-fiber diet as a way to improve health, prevent heart attacks and extend life. Pritikin also outspokenly recommended that heart doctors focus more on nutrition and exercise, and less on drugs and surgery. His appearances on CBS’ “60 Minutes” in 1977 and 1978 brought this then-new message to the public.
Soon, Pritikin was a household word. Using these principles, in 1975 he founded the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami, which still operates as a medical spa that attracts people seeking a longer, healthier life. Pritikin was a contemporary and public adversary of Dr. Robert Atkins, who held a different view of diet and disease. Pritikin committed suicide at age 69 while suffering from leukemia.
The verdict: See Atkins below.
Named one of People magazine’s 25 “Most Intriguing People” at the end of the 20th century and one of Time magazine’s “People Who Mattered,” Robert Atkins was a cardiologist who pioneered a controlled-carbohydrate approach to weight management and to the treatment and prevention of disease.
In doing so, he fueled the low-carb diet craze that continues today; its proponents emphasize a diet high in protein and low in carbohydrates, with an abundance of vegetables and a moderate intake of fats. Atkins wrote many bestselling books on diet and nutrition, including “Dr. Atkins’ Age-Defying Diet Revolution.” Physicians continue to recommend the Atkins Nutritional Approach to control obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other medical conditions.
Atkins died of a brain injury that caused bleeding under the skull after he fell on ice and hit his head while walking to work. He was 72.
Both Pritikin and Atkins contributed significant, well-documented science to the field of nutrition, says Jose Ordovas, professor of nutrition and a senior scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, where he is also director of the Nutrition and Genomics Laboratory. With his team he has studied both methods extensively. “Neither one is right or wrong. Each approach works for a specific genetic makeup.”
In other words, each camp will have a sub group for whom its diet works. For some, a low-fat, high-fiber diet (a la Pritikin) will improve their blood profiles, help them lose weight and approach longevity. For others, a low-carb, high-protein diet (a la Atkins) will do that.
“We have to move beyond the notion that diets are good or bad, and be careful not to globalize, and assume one dietary approach fits all,” Ordovas says.
Among the earliest and most ardent proponents of calorie restriction as a means to extending life, Roy Walford, a UCLA physician, began exploring the links between food and longevity in the 1960s. He restricted the caloric intake of mice by 40% and found that they lived almost twice as long as other mice, an experiment that has often been repeated in other labs by other researchers -- on mice as well as other organisms.
Walford then put himself on a low-calorie, nutrient-dense diet -- around 1,600 calories a day -- and adhered to it rigorously. He wrote several books about diet and longevity, including “Beyond the 120-Year Diet: How to Double Your Vital Years.” He remained active in the Calorie Restriction Society, a group that promotes this approach to longevity. He died of Lou Gehrig’s disease at age 79.
The verdict: Researchers in the field of gerontology and longevity commend Walford’s research. Though many aren’t ready to suggest humans undertake caloric restriction, they recognize it is the only known intervention shown to prolong life in multiple species, including, most recently, primates. It works, scientists believe, because it triggers alterations in metabolic pathways involved in energy utilization. In animal studies, calorie restriction has also resulted in a reduction in age-related disabilities, including cataracts, arthritis, cognitive decline and kidney disease.
While evidence is promising, it’s too soon to jump from the Petri dish to the public, Perls says. “No human studies have proven that calorie-reduction works for people. Plus, getting people to comply is unlikely.”
Ordovas believes the sacrifices in quality of life that may accompany the diet -- loss of ability to reproduce in some animals, and lower energy -- may not be worth it. The National Institute on Aging continues to fund calorie-restriction studies.
Jim Fixx’s passion for running started after his dad had a heart attack at age 35. His father died of a heart attack eight years later. The experience prompted Fixx, an overweight smoker, to start running to prevent a similar fate. Thus, Fixx jump-started a love of jogging among sedentary Americans. His book “The Complete Book of Running” touted the health benefits of running and claimed that regular running offered virtual immunity to heart disease. He hoped that by helping eliminate the nation’s No. 1 killer, he would help extend lives. His 1978 book sold half a million hardback copies in the United States in nine months, and hit No. 1 on the New York Times book list.
His death of a heart attack while jogging at age 52 stunned the country.
The verdict: Fixx got Americans running. His passion, book and story helped launch a running industry that gave rise to shoe stores and magazines devoted entirely to running. He had inherited a congenital risk for heart disease, which even running couldn’t cure. Some say that if he hadn’t been a runner, he would have died even younger.
Durk Pearson (1943 - **)
and Sandy Shaw (1943 -**)
This husband and wife team were among the first to popularize the notion that it is possible to extend life with supplementation. They used their science backgrounds -- Shaw has a chemistry degree from UCLA, and Pearson has a degree in physics from MIT -- to study aging, then began recommending vitamins and supplements to combat age-related disabilities and illnesses.
Today they are the primary formulators of supplements for Life Extension Products, a company based in Petaluma, Calif. They also write the Life Extension Newsletter, available online with their supplements at www.life-enhancement.com. They built a profitable empire, wrote a couple of books, and fell from public view. They now live in central Nevada.
The verdict: While many people still place a lot of faith in supplements, “No single vitamin or mineral that has undergone a well-designed clinical trial has ever shown any effectiveness,” Ordovas says. None has proved to extend life. Not even vitamin D, calcium and fish oil, which many doctors still believe are beneficial. You need vitamins and minerals in context. You need them to come from foods that contain those nutrients -- not pills.
“All people who buy these vitamins and supplements wind up with is very expensive urine,” Olshansky says. “Pearson and Shaw have aged like everyone else,” he adds, “and don’t look any better than a lot of people their age.”
A controversial proponent of using human growth hormone to combat aging, Dr. Alan Mintz founded Cenegenics Medical Institute, a Las Vegas-based clinic, with satellites around the world, that promotes injecting human growth hormone as an anti-aging therapy. Himself a user of human growth hormone, he often showed off his ripped physique as evidence of the benefits. He died at age 69 from complications of a brain biopsy. The verdict: “HGH is a dangerous idea,” says Laurence Rubenstein, a geriatrician at UCLA Medical Center. “It may make your muscles bigger, but it brings with it other serious problems.” Growth hormones can improve certain aspects of the aging body, such as skin elasticity, muscle mass and bone density, but it makes diabetes and vascular disease worse and can encourage cancer cells to grow. (Brain cancer seems to be a particular risk.) The same benefits can be had via diet and exercise, without the considerable dangers.
“We’ve been down this path with other hormones,” Perls says. “We looked at DHEA and melatonin and found they don’t do anything to prevent aging. Now we’re fighting the use of HGH, which is basically anabolic steroids, but those injecting it don’t call it that.”
“People think if you simply inject a substance that wanes with age, all will be well again, and it just isn’t so,” Olshansky says. Replacing hormones has been something physicians have been trying for centuries to promote virility, youth and longevity. The concept has proven over and over again to be false, and sometimes detrimental.
(1960 - **)
The longevity guru du jour, Mehmet Oz is a cardiac surgeon . and the director of the Cardiovascular Institute at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. He’s also the power behind RealAge.com, a website that invites visitors to learn how their birth age stacks up against their “real age.” He’s also the author of several books with Dr. Michael Roizen, including “YOU: The Owner’s Manual: An Insider’s Guide to the Body That Will Make You Healthier and Younger.”
A telegenic media personality, Oz often appears on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” wearing scrubs and touting ways to achieve optimal health and “extreme longevity.” He declares that people living today can reach age 125, “without any question.”
The verdict: Though the public loves his optimistic views on longevity, scientists in the field are less charitable.
“Oz mistakenly assumes we all have the potential to live as long as the longest-lived person, and that’s not true. He doesn’t understand the difference between preventing disease and aging,” Olshansky says.
However, researchers do give Oz points for his RealAge Test, an online questionnaire that has visitors enter information about their genes, health issues and lifestyles, to determine their age score. “I’m all for any education tool that provides an interesting way to get the public thinking about healthier behaviors,” Perls says. “Most of what’s on his site is backed by good science.”
The site has received criticism, most notably from the New York Times, for sharing visitors’ medical profiles with pharmaceutical companies for marketing purposes.