The Quest for Longevity


FLORIDA MIGHT yet boast a fountain of youth—according to a presentation last month in West Palm Beach.

People hoping to increase their longevity have many options: injections of young blood (in Florida), post-partum placentas and stem cells; eons-old bacteria from Arctic permafrost; and pills, such as the diabetes-drug metformin and formulations containing various forms of nicotinamide.  Despite the fact that most of these are not yet supported by gold-standard clinical studies, they’re expensive— thousands of dollars or more.

Demanding more effort and will power and backed by better or at least longer term research are choices like calorie restriction and exercise, especially with added intervals of fasting and intense exercise. They’re also usually cheaper, although many dietary regimens offer costly options, including one with “teeny-weeny meals,” according to editorial writer Pagan Kennedy.

The best life-extenders of all, however, may be reducing air and water pollution,  which require both money and effort, though less from the individual and more from the community. “It’s the decisions that we make as a collective that matter more than any choice we make on our own,” Kennedy points out.

“The greatest gains in longevity have occurred not because of personal choices but because of public sanitation, clean water and the control of infectious diseases,” former CDC Director Thomas Frieden told Kennedy.  A recent study found that babies exposed to high levels of air pollution in the womb may be at risk for premature aging.

It is interesting to note, as Kennedy points out, that pioneers of drastic diet recommendations for better health, including Roy Walford, of the calorie-restricted diet, as well as Nathan Pritikin and Robert Atkins, proposers of diametrically opposed low- and high-fat diets, died in their 70s.

Among the newer options, infusions of young blood—specifically a trial with an enrollment cost of $285,000—was described to a West Palm Beach roomful of “mostly baby boomers.”  Independent experts, however, are critical: “It just reeks of snake oil,” said Michael Conboy, cell and molecular biologist at UC Berkeley.  “There’s no evidence in my mind that it’s going to work.

The infusions contain plasma (proteins and other molecules but no red or white cells) from young people who’ve taken a drug to activate their immune systems.  Earlier plasma transfusions have been offered by a Stanford University lab spin-off as well as by a company called Ambrosia (price tag $8,000), but the Florida group is the first to add immune-system stimulators to increase the plasma’s “restorative” effect.

So-called “biohacking” has also focused on nicotinamide (niacinamide)—part of the Vitamin B3 complex and found in cow’s milk and brewer’s yeast—which appears to boost both physical and cognitive functions and is marketed OTC as a cognitive enhancer.

NAD+ (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide), a related molecule that regulates cellular aging and diminishes over time, is “the closest we’ve gotten to a fountain of youth,” according to Harvard Medical School Aging Center Co-Director David Sinclair, who plans to submit NAD+ research for FDA approval.

Another NAD+ product, called Basis and sold by Elysium Health, was developed at an MIT lab and is marketed as a supplement that helps people stay healthier longer —rather than as a life-extending drug—thus bypassing the FDA approval process.

Calorie restriction, touted for life-extension and an increasing common recommendation for brain health, refers to consuming about 75% of daily calorie needs (between 1,600 to 2,000 calories/day). For “alternate-day fasting,” days spent consuming 25% of calorie needs are alternated with “feast days,” consuming 125%.  In recent studies, the long-term effects of the two had similar effects on risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

“Fasting” also refers to intervals, in this case, the increasingly well-regarded 12-hour fast between dinner and breakfast—to give the body time to finish digesting and sufficient additional time to clear the brain of debris (especially amyloid-beta plaque) accumulated during daytime activities.

Intervals of high intensity are also the latest enthusiasm in exercising.  Mayo Clinic researcher Sreekumaran Nair noted that high-intensity interval training (HIIT), in particular, is “highly efficient” when it comes to reversing many age-related changes.

The weekly exercise recommendation from the Department of Health and Human Services calls for at least 150 minutes of moderate, or 75 minutes of intense, aerobic activity; plus strength training for all major muscle groups on at least two days.  But the Mayo Clinic website suggests as “a general goal, aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day, and 300 minutes of aerobics for “more health benefits.” (On the site, “moderate aerobic” refers to “brisk walking,” and “vigorous” to running.)

—Mary Carpenter
Check out this space every Tuesday for Mary Carpenter’s posts on health issues for grown-up girls.



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