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This chapter is from the book

Strategies for a Longer Life

There are other strategies that can affect how long you live. An obvious behavior is watching your calorie intake. Another strategy that has been touted all over the Internet is drinking red wine—in moderation, of course.

Calorie Restriction

One actionable strategy that appears to extend human life is perhaps not that appealing for cultures that like to eat a lot. It’s certainly not compatible with the Super-Size Me America we live in today. The technique is to eat 30 percent less than you might normally eat. Calorie restriction (CR) as a strategy to live longer has been around for more than 500 years.

Luigi Cornaro, a fifteenth century Venetian nobleman, is the first person who increased his life span by eating fewer calories. He ate 350 calories and drank 414 milliliters (about half a bottle) of wine per day, and he lived to 102. Before he died, he published a book about calorie-restrictive eating called Discourses on the Temperate Life. There was not much evidence to back his theory until the twentieth century when studies with mice popularized the idea of eating less to live longer.

In 1934, Clive McCay and Mary Crowell, two nutritionists from Cornell University, published a breakthrough study that found mice fed a calorie-restrictive diet almost doubled the typical life span for their species. The same findings were reproduced in similar studies in the 1980s by two notable longevity researchers, Richard Weindruch and Roy Walford.

Walford used the results of the study to formulate a calorie-restrictive diet that he sold to humans (because mice can’t read). He called it “The 120 Year Diet.” And he outlined the process in a book by the same name, which he published in 1986.

A calorie-restrictive diet is simple. It suggests eating about 30 percent less calories than nutritionally advised. That would mean if the recommended daily minimum for an adult male is 2,500, Walford’s diet would have him eat 1,800 to 2,000 calories per day.

In 2000, Walford’s follow-up book did better than his first as it contained tangible evidence related to humans that backed his theory. He was involved in a research study, called Biosphere 2, that required eight bioscientists, Walford included, to eat calorie-restrictive diets.

From 1991 to 1993, the participants lived in a three-acre, self-contained greenhouse in the Arizona desert. The intention was to test the survivability of a small group of people in a man-made colony for a long period of time. The group was forced to live on only what they could grow, and naturally, their diets were limited to approximately 1,500 calories a day.

When they left the biosphere, lab tests showed dramatic health improvements. Their glucose and insulin levels were down, their body fat was reduced, and the process of cell loss had slowed. This gave Walford credibility.

Unfortunately, he died in 2004 at the age of 79. (And, let’s face it, it’s hard to be a credible longevity doctor if you don’t live a long time.) In all fairness he had suffered from the brain disease ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and it’s likely that this caused his premature death. A later ALS research study that used mice found that calorie-restrictive eating might provoke an early death in ALS patients. The irony.

Many people still eat calorie-restrictive diets today. This way of eating involves calculating calories before consuming food. Calorie-restrictive eaters also avoid using extreme heat cooking methods. No frying, grilling, roasting, barbecuing, or smoking food. (We can’t imagine there are many CR diet proponents in the Southeast.) Heating food introduces harmful compounds into the food, called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). This occurs when carbohydrates and proteins combine without any enzymes. When glucose in carbohydrates combines with protein, cells go stiff. It’s been suggested this process leads to cellular damage and premature aging. Eating raw and unprocessed foods helps calorie-restrictive eaters avoid AGEs.

TheCalorist.com is a site dedicated to teaching people today how to live the CR way. In 2012, its founder, Joe Cordell, was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show when he was 51. He was described by medical professionals at the time to have the body of a 20-year-old athlete.

Cordell told Oprah the whole idea of calorie restrictive eating is “about getting the most nutrients per calorie.” For breakfast he’d eat the peel of an apple, for its nutrients, mixed with berries and walnuts that he weighed. Lunch was a giant family-sized bowl of salad, and dinner was something similar.

Cordell’s site shares references to positive research studies and quotes from qualified experts that reinforce the benefits of calorie-restrictive eating. However, recent findings conclude that it is doubtful that calorie-restrictive diets are an effective life-extending strategy.

In 2012, TIME magazine published an article with this headline: “Want to Live longer? Don’t Try Calorie Restriction.” The article referenced two calorie-restriction studies with conflicting results done on the rhesus macaque, a small monkey.

The Wisconsin National Primate Research Centre (WNPRC) in Madison published the results of a 20-year study in 2009. It reported that monkeys fed calorie-restrictive diets had lower rates of diabetes, cancer, heart disease and brain disease. It also found that a lower number of monkeys on calorie-restrictive diets died from nonage-related causes. It found 13 percent of the CR diet monkeys died from age-related causes compared to 37 percent of monkeys in a control group that were not fed a restricted diet.

This all sounded pretty good, until the National Institute of Aging (NIA) published its conflicting results three years later. That research involved a 25-year study that followed a very similar format to the WNPRC. However, the NIA concluded that genetics and dietary composition matters more than calorie restriction for prolonging life.

When both studies were examined more closely, the qualifying difference was the quality of food both groups of monkeys were fed. The WNPRC monkeys were fed an unhealthy diet, high in sucrose (table sugar). And their calorie-restricted monkeys ate less of the bad food.

The NIA fed their monkeys food composed of fish oils and antioxidants. Monkeys in the NIA control group were also fed fixed amounts of food versus the WNPRC monkeys in the control group who ate what they wanted when they wanted.

NIA’s research produced no connection between calorie restriction and health. They suggest that genetics could be more important than diet.

The debate continued and in 2014 a further examination produced different results. Because the WNPRC monkeys were allowed to eat all the food they wanted, they naturally had a higher body weight than the NIA monkeys who lived longer. Monkeys that ate what they wanted had a three-fold higher risk of death. This means that calorie restriction can still make a difference in increasing life span.

The NIA and WNPRC might collaborate in a further study in an effort to fully understand why such different results were generated and to get closer to accurate, measurable results. Until then, calorie restriction might be a strategy to consider. The lesson: Eat less, but ensure it is a high-quality diet. So put that chocolate bar down and go eat half a kale sandwich.

Red Wine and Resveratrol

If you are unwilling to restrict your diet (or are dubious that it will work), you might want to simply drink more wine. Well, kind of. You’d have to drink a lot of red wine to reap its longevity benefits. Hooray!

The health benefits of red wine come from a compound called resveratrol, which is found in grape skin. It is as you might guess a key component of red wine. Sorry white wine and liquor drinkers, your beverages don’t contain resveratrol. But take heart, resveratrol is also found in peanuts (and peanut butter), dark chocolate, and blueberries, as well as, you guessed it, red skinned grapes.

Red wine contains at most 12.59 milligrams of resveratrol per liter, so to get 500 milligrams daily, you’d need to drink almost 40 liters daily (that’s about 53 bottles).

It was first isolated by Japanese researcher Michio Takaoka in 1939. Newer contemporary research confirms the theory that resveratrol can promote longer cell life by stimulating the cellular proteins known as sirtuins.

Dr. David Sinclair of Harvard Medical School originally discovered resveratrol’s effect on sirtuins in 2003. (Sirtuins are proteins that regulate biological processes linked to aging.) He and his team recently discovered that resveratrol appears to help increase the activity of mitochondria, which produces energy within cells, which extend the cell’s lives.

In scientific circles, resveratrol is what’s known as a synthetic Sirtuin-activating compound (STAC). This means that it can be removed from its originating source (grapes, peanuts, or berries) and made into pills. When it’s ingested, resveratrol activates a specific gene linked to longevity called SIRT1.

In a 2013 TED Talk for TEDMED, Sinclair recalled the initial study. “I thought the mice would die. Resveratrol wasn’t known to be safe in those days. But, what happened was really surprising. The mice fed resveratrol stayed healthy and had the physiology of a lean mouse.”

Sinclair discovered that mice put on regular fatty diets and fed resveratrol were as healthy as mice that were fed a lean diet.

A follow up study, conducted in Switzerland, fed resveratrol to mice who became unusually healthy. The resveratrol-fed mice could run faster and for a longer time than a control group and became a breed of high achievers.

Some suggest resveratrol could be a modern day fountain of youth. In 2008, pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmith paid $720 million to acquire Sirtris, a research company co-owned by Sinclair. The company intended to use his research to develop new drugs that act on sirtuins. In 2013, initial drug trials were successful so they moved the entire operation to Philadelphia. Research continues today.

Sinclair is still studying the sirtuin genes. When we asked him what he does to stay young, he told us, “I take resveratrol.”

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