Would you like to live longer? Of course! I can remember as a child having what could initially appear as a morbid fascination for cemeteries. I used to drag my parents into each and every cemetery we walked or drove by…just so I could calculate how long people had lived! Perhaps my curiosity in longevity led to an interest (some may say obsession) in health.
Having just read “The Blue Zones” by Dan Buettner, I’d like to share some of his insights. Blue zones represent regions of our planet where people generally live significantly longer. For years, Buettner and his collaborators have searched the globe for those treasured blue zones in the hope of learning how to improve our health and increase our longevity.
So far, five blue zones have been identified: the mountainous regions of Sardinia, the island of Okinawa in Japan, Loma Linda in California, the Nicoyan peninsula in Costa Rica and the island of Ikaria in Greece. The first striking characteristic is that these regions are isolated by geography, culture or religion. This seems to be crucial because it means the people living in these regions have been able to continue living a traditional lifestyle until very recently. Most have grown up leading physically active lives and eating mainly plant-based diets (due to the cost of meat). Family and socialising is central to their lives. Although a lot have lived through hardships, they lead relatively stress-free lives primarily because they place little importance on money, material possessions, job status, etc.
Buettner has identified common factors that are associated with longevity and distilled them down to 9 lessons. He stresses that these practices are only associated to longevity but don’t necessarily increase it. As we know association isn’t the same as causation. The 9 lessons are:
- Move naturally. Walk, cycle, garden, enrol in enjoyable classes
- Eat until you’re 80% full. Don’t stuff yourself
- Plant-based diet. Avoid meat and processed foods
- Alcohol (in moderation)
- Purpose. Have a reason to get out of bed in the morning
- Downshift. Take time to relieve stress
- Belong. Participate in spiritual community
- Loved Ones First. Make family a priority
- Right Tribe. Be surrounded by those who share Blue Zone values
He recommends introducing one or two of them at a time. It may be easier to start with the lessons we have a greater affinity for or simply those we find easiest to adopt. It’s not even necessary to try to follow all the steps. There you go…no rocket science or witchcraft required!
- Propecia: now used to promote hair growth in balding men but originally sold to treat prostate enlargement
- Viagra: now used to treat male erectile dysfunction but originally sold to treat hypertension and angina
- Play-Doh: now sold as molding clay for children but originally marketed as a wallpaper cleaner
- WD-40: now used as a mechanical lubricant but originally invented to protect nuclear missiles
Last week I read an article in Medical News Today that made me think glucosamine could be next on the list. Glucosamine has been used for years to treat joint pain and stiffness but Ristow and colleagues have explored a different use and published their findings in the April issue of Nature Communications. They fed glucosamine to roundworms and found that they lived about 5% longer than the control group. Encouraged by the results they then fed glucosamine to ageing mice. The mice were 100 weeks of age which is equal to around 65 years in human age. Amazingly, the lifespan of the mice on glucosamine was increased by 10% compared to the controls on a normal diet. This is equivalent to 8 extra years of human lifespan! The researchers found that glucosamine offered protection from diabetes by improving glucose metabolism.
How could this relate to humans? Well, a study by White and colleagues published a couple of years ago in European Journal of Epidemiology may answer that question. Over 77,000 people aged 50-76 years were followed for mortality for about 5 years. Glucosamine was linked to a significant decreased risk of death from cancer and a large risk reduction for death from respiratory diseases. Glucosamine and chondroitin use was associated with a decreased risk of total mortality.
There are no known side effects of glucosamine supplementation. If I wasn’t already taking glucosamine, I’d be heading straight for the shops!
Another great programme from BBC Horizon presented by Dr Moseley. He starts off the programme by following the oldest man to complete the London marathon…a 101 yr old sikh who is healthy and takes no medication…the typical 65 yr old european takes 6 pills a day! The centenarian attributes his good health to his diet and more specifically his small portion size…about half of a normal adult”s.
This is not the first time that caloric restriction has been linked to longevity. In the 1930s, during the great depression in the US, although there were widespread food shortages…surprisingly life expectancy increased by 6 years. During the same period scientists at Cornell University found that animals on restricted diets lived longer.
Dr Moseley had a keen personal interest in the subject because of the threat of disease due to elevated blood sugar and cholesterol. He traveled the US speaking to the most eminent specialists in the field in a quest for a solution to his health problems. His first port of call was Professor Luigi Fontana from Washington University and Salerno Schools of Medicine. Prof Fontana advised a diet low in calories but high in nutrients and introduced Dr Moseley to Joe. Joe was in his 50s and had been on 1900 kcal/day for about 10 years. His body fat was 11.5% whereas Dr Moseley”s, also in his 50s, had a body fat % of about 27. Although the benefits were clear, Dr Moseley wanted to understand the mechanism in the hope of being able to draw the benefits without having to do any of the hard work! This is one of the reasons I like his programmes…his attitude is typical of the average european (or american)…we want results quickly, with as little effort as possible…sound familiar?
He then met up with Professor Valter Longo at the University of Southern California. Prof Longo showed him a special mouse…about half the size of a normal mouse…but incredibly it had a lifespan that was 40% longer…the equivalent of 120 human casino jameshallison years! The mouse had been genetically modified to have low levels of the a growth hormone called Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF1). IGF1 is thought to be the link between calorie restriction and longevity. There are about 350 people worldwide who have genetically inherited low levels of IGF1. Their condition is named Laron syndrome and although some of them smoke and eat what they want, amazingly they don”t get diabetes or cancer! Low levels of IGF1 seem to increase cell repair and decrease cell division (which probably accounts for their extremely small stature).
Protein has been found to increase our metabolism and put us in “go-go” mode but the downside is that it decreases cell repair. Three things can help decrease levels of IGF1: decreasing calorie intake, decreasing protein intake and lastly, the most effective way…is by fasting. Fasting can dramatically reduces levels of blood glucose and IGF1 within as little as 24 hrs. Obviously fasting can be dangerous and should only be undertaken if in good health and under close medical supervision. So Dr Moseley decided to give it a go for 3.5 days. He only allowed himself water, black tea and a 50 kcal soup each day. As expected, his blood sugar decreased significantly and his IGF1 levels halved. Unfortunately, the effects are only temporary and one would need to decrease protein intake and fast every couple of months to maintain changes…not for Dr Moseley, so he continued his search…
Dr Krista Varady from the University of Illinois at Chicago had a much more palatable proposition…eat as much of whatever you want on one day and eat a reduced amount of whatever you want the following day…feed day, fast day, feed day, fast day, etc. It”s called Alternate Day Fasting (ADF). On the fast days women are advised to eat 400-500 kcal and men 500-600 kcal. Preliminary trials with overweight subjects are showing promising results including weight loss, lower levels of bad cholesterol and fats in blood and decreased blood pressure.
Lastly, Dr Moseley paid a visit to Dr Mark Mattsen from the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore. He has conducted animal experiments on intermittent fasting and has found that it postpones the development of Alzheimer”s and senile dementia like diseases. Sporadic bouts of hunger seem to trigger the growth of new neurones! In evolutionary terms, this would have provided a survival advantage in times of famine. Intermittent fasting has better effects on the brain than daily calorie restriction. Dr Mattsen suggested alternating 5 days of normal eating with 2 days of fasting. So Dr Moseley gave it a go for 5 weeks. On the normal days her took in around 200 kcal and on the fast days he ate about 600 kcal. Please bear in mind that normal calorie intake is based on sex, height, weight and activity. The results were extremely impressive. He managed to lose 1 stone and decrease his body fat from 27% to 19%! His blood sugar levels decreased to within normal limits, his IGF1 levels halved, his total cholesterol decreased and his good cholesterol increased. I assume that although he could have eaten whatever he wanted, he was sensible about it.
Dr Moseley ended the programme by saying that it was “the most interesting journey that I”ve ever been on…and I”ve never said that before”.