Live, Fast, Die Old 

A growing body of evidence suggests that eating less, way less, could thwart disease and delay old age.

Page 6 of 6

Whether that would be good or bad depends on perspective, but the concept of life extension poses profound questions related to social order. Are we going to have a generation of decrepit 120-year-olds, barely clinging to consciousness? It's easy to imagine the potential health-care, Social Security, and population-control nightmares created by a generation of übercodgers. After all, the CDC reports, the average American 75-year-old has three chronic conditions and uses five prescription drugs -- we're hardly a superspecies.

Or could we, on the other hand, produce what Cal's James Carey terms the "salmon model," in which we've eradicated so many diseases that the very elderly won't even get sick before they die, but transition almost instantly from health to death? Hellerstein and Hsieh speculate that calorie restriction may bring not only longer life, but a healthier old age, since it appears to postpone so many chronic diseases. "Then," Hsieh says, "the conditions that we see at age eighty maybe don't occur until age one hundred."

In general, the researchers tend to be more excited by calorie restriction's potential than troubled by its implications. "For most of human history, forty years old was an old man," Ames says. "Since the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism, we have been getting longer and longer life expectancies, and of course this is unnatural -- the natural thing is to die at forty! I don't think there's anything wrong with it. We've adapted to this 25 extra years of life, and we'll adapt to another 50 years or whatever it's going to be."

"We always fight against evolution," Hellerstein concurs. "We do that as physicians all the time. That's our job, to be smarter than nature."

Nature, however, is pretty good at outsmarting us. Even the most ardent calorie restrictor knows there are no guarantees -- there's always the possibility of an errant city bus or falling anvil. Calorie Restriction Society inspiration Roy Walford spent much of his life trying to elude death, but it found him anyway. In 2004, he succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. He was 79, far short of the desired 120, and while Walford blamed his affliction on oxygen deprivation suffered in Biosphere 2, Mattson has another theory based on his studies. "The one neurogenetic disorder we found that could be worsened by caloric restriction was ALS," he muses. "It kind of seems like an interesting coincidence."

Since the future is guaranteed to no one, most people would rather focus on the pleasures of the present. In our culture, that often means food: holiday dinners, birthday cakes, invitations for a beer or a slice with some friends. "There are some people who will clearly say, if that's what it's going to take to live a long time, I don't want to live a long time -- I would rather eat my steak and have butter and gravy and die at sixty than live to seventy," says Hudson, the dietician.

Yet simply because you eat less, Bettencourt says, doesn't mean food can't be pleasurable. "That ability to really relish what you're doing is independent of the thing you're relishing. You might love a big bowl of ice cream, I might love two blueberries," he says. "Teach yourself to enjoy whatever is good for you and you've got it all."

Even longevity experts find themselves torn over whether to practice what they research. Kenyon sticks to the low-carb South Beach diet, and while she doesn't consider herself a calorie restrictor, she eats less than she used to. Ames, who recently turned 77, follows a Mediterranean diet and takes both a multivitamin and his Juvenon supplement. Lin says she has no interest in restricting her diet while she's working -- "I can't think when I'm hungry," she says wryly. And Hsieh says she'll consider restricting only if, heaven forbid, she's diagnosed with diabetes or cancer.

As for Hellerstein, the 54-year-old prof will stick to running. "I don't want to be miserable so I can live four extra years, or ten extra years," he says. "On the other hand, if it really was true that you could eat 25 percent or 30 percent less every other day and live ten more years, would I do that?" He scratches his chin thoughtfully. "I'll have to think about that." The researcher then gets up to root around in a bowl of candy he's been picking through all afternoon. "Just because you study caloric restriction," he says, popping one into his mouth, "doesn't mean you can't eat an Atomic Fireball."

Editor's note: This story has been corrected since it first appeared. Tristan Bettencourt is 48, not 38.

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