Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Anti-Aging in the Media: Newsweek on the Search for Longer Life

Scientists are pushing life's autumn back. (Photo by prakhar)

I don't know if you've noticed, but there seems to be an anti-aging news story in the media almost every week these days.

In the past years, the tone of these articles and interviews has usually been quite negative. Scientists working in the field have often been dismissed as being unrealistically hopeful. Life extension has been seen as something of a fringe science.

Luckily, that trend is now changing. We're not only seeing more stories on how to prevent aging and live longer, we're seeing much more positive stories. That means life extension is seriously getting attention in mainstream media. As the science progresses, so do the attitudes.

A recent addition to anti-aging pieces appeared in Newsweek. In the article, the search for longer life is boldly declared "a real science" – something many journalists have not dared to say, probably out of fear of being ridiculed.

The author of the story also tackles common arguments against life extension:

Some critics of the scientific quest for longevity say it's God's will that we should die when our time comes. But in the past century, a clean water supply, antibiotics, vaccines and improved medical care have boosted life expectancy at birth by roughly 50 percent in the United States—from 48 for men and 51 for women in 1900 to 75 for men and 80 for women today. No one seems to object to that.

And of course, no article on how to live longer would be complete without mentioning caloric restriction. Even though several positive things about CR are pointed out, the conclusion is rather negative:

Extreme calorie restriction is not a practice that most people should try. Too many people are likely to simply yo-yo out of any initial weight loss. And pregnant women and children should never attempt it, lest they hinder development.

The last sentence might be true, but the yo-yo dieting argument doesn't really hold water. First, trying caloric restriction for a while and then returning to normal eating doesn't do any harm. In fact, it will probably do good, since intermittent fasting has shown many positive effects.

Second, any diet can be disputed by saying "Better not try it; I'd just put the weight back on". If this is true, how come so many people succeed on low-carb diets or paleolithic diets? I'm not saying caloric restriction is for most people (it isn't), but the argument against it in the article is not very strong.

Another thing that bugged me was a reference to the food pyramid, a terrible monument built by the worshippers of nutrition god Ancel Keys. His legacy is one we should get rid of once and for all. Here's the quote:

Studies are already yielding important clues on what produces healthy aging. One obvious answer is a healthy lifestyle, with plenty of exercise and a diet that includes lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Seventh-day Adventists eat a vegetarian diet, don't smoke and spend a lot of time with family and church groups, which helps reduce stress.

The diet part is simply repeating the old mantra, even though the science does not back up the hypothesis that whole grains are really needed. I would be careful with fruit, too, since they contain lots of fructose, which may increase triglyceride levels.

I'm not convinced by the vegetarianism argument either: the Seventh-day Adventists also periodically fast, which may be the reason behind their longevity.

Still, I found the article an enjoyable read. Hopefully we'll see many more such stories during this year.

For more information on anti-aging, see these posts:

End Aging to End Anxiety: Filmmaker Jason Silva Talks about Immortality
Growing New Body Parts: Breakthroughs in Regenerative Medicine
Drinking 10 Cups of Green Tea Daily and Not Smoking Could Add 12 Years to Your Life
How the Accumulation of Minerals Might Cause Aging in Humans

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