16 March 2010

Practical measures for personal longevity

Filed under: aging, supplement, UKH+, UKTA — David Wood @ 12:06 pm

What steps do you take, to enhance your personal longevity?

That’s a question I still struggle to answer.  I believe that the next few decades will see  spectacular advances in science, technology, society, art, and culture, and I’d very much like to participate in these – in some cases as an observer, and in some cases as an engineer and activist.  Rationally, therefore, I should be taking steps to make it more likely that I will remain alive, fit, and healthy, throughout these coming decades.  But what are these steps?

That’s the topic of the UKH+ (Extrobritannia) meeting that will be taking place in London on the afternoon of Sunday 28th March: “Aging and dietary supplements – correcting some myths“.  The speaker will be Michael Price, who has been carrying out independent research for 30 years into questions of life extension and futurism.  The meeting is described as follows on the Extrobritannia meetings blog:

This talk will review where we are (and aren’t) with respect to understanding aging. It will cover theories of aging, and the (largely failed) promises of gerontologists and immortalists, past and present. It will then make some suggestions for what we can do now – including a discussion of which dietary supplements may work, which may not, and why dietary supplements are generally discredited.

The idea of a “pill to make you live longer” is alluring, and often drums up tabloid headlines.  A Google search for “pill to make you live longer” returns more than 900,000 results.  Some websites look more credible than others.  In addition to pills, these websites often talk about “superfoods”.  For example, the Maximum Life Foundation recently published an article “Seven Superfoods That Will Keep You Young” and listed the following:

  1. Whey Protein
  2. Raw, Organic Eggs
  3. Leafy Greens
  4. Broccoli
  5. Blueberries
  6. Chlorella
  7. Garlic, the “Stinking Rose”

The same article continues:

The Most Important Way to Slow Aging

Do you know what the number one way to slow aging in your body is? If you’re like most people, you don’t.

Most people don’t understand the importance of optimizing their insulin levels, as insulin is without a doubt THE major accelerant of aging. Fortunately, you can go a long way toward keeping your insulin levels healthy by reducing or eliminating grains and sugars from your diet.

This one crucial step, combined with nutritional typing and the inclusion of nature’s anti-aging miracle foods in your diet, can dramatically improve your health and longevity.

It is also crucial to include a comprehensive exercise program as that is another lifestyle choice that will radically improve the sensitivity of your insulin receptors and help to optimize your insulin levels.

Theories about superfoods, pills, and other dietary supplement, depend in turn on theories of the causes of aging.  Some of these theories remain controversial – and I expect Michael will review the latest findings.  These theories include (to quote from Wikipedia, emphasis added):

  • Telomere theory: Telomeres (structures at the ends of chromosomes) have experimentally been shown to shorten with each successive cell division. Shortened telomeres activate a mechanism that prevents further cell multiplication. This may be an important mechanism of ageing in tissues like bone marrow and the arterial lining where active cell division is necessary. Importantly though, mice lacking telomerase enzyme do not show a dramatically reduced lifespan, as the simplest version of this theory would predict;
  • Free-Radical Theory: The idea that free radicals (unstable and highly reactive organic molecules, also named reactive oxygen species or oxidative stress) create damage that gives rise to symptoms we recognize as ageing.

Given the rich variety of different advice, it may be tempting – especially for people who are still in the first few decades of their lives – to take a different approach to hoping for a long life.  This approach is to trust that technological and medical improvements will happen quickly enough to be usefully applicable to you later in your life.  For example, someone in their twenties today can judge it as likely that significant improvements in anti-aging techniques will be widely available before they reach the age of sixty.

After all, life expectancy continues to rise.  Figures released last year by the UK’s Office of National Statistics (PDF) state that:

  • Life expectancy for males in the UK, at birth, was 73.4 years, in 1991-1993;
  • This figure rose to 77.4 in 2006-2008;
  • That’s a 4.0 year increase in life expectancy over that 15 year period.

People can follow the lead of anti-aging researcher Aubrey de Grey and talk about a future “longevity escape velocity” in which the increase in life expectancy over a 15 year period would be at least 15 years.  That’s an attractive vision, and de Grey makes a persuasive argument that it is credible.  What is far less certain, however, is:

  • The future timescale in which such remedies will become available;
  • Any variability in the performance of these future remedies, which might be influenced by the amount of damage our bodies have accumulated in the meantime.

These reservations increase the importance of addressing personal longevity issues sooner rather than later.  I’m reminded of the quotation that is attributed to Theodore Roosevelt:

Old age is like everything else. To make a success of it, you’ve got to start young

Finally, I’ll return to the question posed at the start of this article:

What steps do you take, to enhance your personal longevity?

At present, here’s my answer:

  • Have an annual medical checkup, to detect early warning signs of impending trouble;
  • Take (on doctor’s prescription) a statin pill in the evening, to lower cholesterol;
  • Take a collection of pills in the morning, including ginseng, mutivitamins, garlic, and ginkgo biloba;
  • “5 a day” portions of fruit and vegetables;
  • Pay attention to gum health, by cleaning between teeth as well as the teeth themselves;
  • Keep fit, by walking, and (increasingly) by spending time on the golf course or golf driving range;
  • Avoid cigarettes and excess alcohol;
  • Avoid dangerous sports.

I may have a different answer, after listening to Michael’s talk at the end of the month.


  1. I can tell you that here, in Finland, it’s impossible to guess someone’s age since everyone looks 10 years younger. part of that is due to the cold, which I believe slows down aging, and part of it is the relatively stress free lifestyle. a lot is provided by the government, and the vast majority of people are lower class.

    I’m not doubting the ability of pills and certain foods to help, but location and stress factors should strongly be taken into consideration.

    Comment by Stefan Constantinescu — 16 March 2010 @ 12:27 pm

    • Interesting – though Finland doesn’t show particularly highly in either of the lists in the Wikipedia article “List of countries by life expectancy

      One thing these raw lists of “life expectancy” miss is a measure of the number of years of “healthy life expectancy” (or “youthful life expectancy”) – but see here for some lists for that.

      I do think it’s likely that stress is a contributory factor to lifespan. That’s not to say all stress is bad – far from it. But some kinds of stress are definitely deleterious.

      Comment by David Wood — 16 March 2010 @ 12:40 pm

  2. My answer would be..
    Diet added to your list as well as exercise. Eating less saturated fats and processed sugars and more fibre, and getting 5-a-day of fruit and veg, is extremely important. Diet and exercise is the one big thing that has taken a nosedive in western society in the last 10 years, IMHO, especially as the proportion of sedentary jobs has vastly increased.
    For the last 10 years, I’ve exercised in the form of Cardiovascular, Weight training, and high impact sports like boxing, at least 3 times a week.
    BMI is also not solely a good indicator of health levels, rather it is also muscle and fat proportion of body weight, which I’m maintaining at 47% and 9% respectively.
    I’ve given up smoking, and am trying to keep my alcohol intake down.
    I can’t give up dangerous sports though, they’re the only thing that make me feel truly alive!

    Comment by chris — 16 March 2010 @ 12:53 pm

    • Chris – Good point about the 5-a-day fruit & veg; that is something I generally do, so I’ve edited my posting to add it to the list.

      Your keep-fit regime looks like it would consume a lot of time … which is what attracts me (and probably many others) to a notion that hi-tech ought to be able to provide some kind of shortcut to this kind of fitness. You know, “gain without quite so much pain”

      In the meantime, a good compromise ought to be to practice a form of exercise that allows me to listen to audiobooks at the same time.

      Comment by David Wood — 17 March 2010 @ 2:07 pm

      • “keep-fit regime looks like it would consume a lot of time”… most definitely. In my particular case it helps that I don’t live with any family, or am not attached to a significant other – so I have a lot more time than the average person.
        My regime is NOT for everyone – certainly, it depends on age, time and inclination. I hated the gym when I was a teen, but now it’s very much a hobby – In particular I’m now very aware of the endorphin rush, relaxation and good sleep that only exercise and sports induce. In my case I’ve found it the ONLY antidote to work-related stress.

        You should check with your doctor before embarking on any type of change in fitness activities. IMO I would recommend non-impact exercise like static-rowing or static-cycling, where you can keep headphones on and not require much concentration, possibly initially installed in your home.

        Benefits of exercise :

        Comment by chris — 17 March 2010 @ 3:41 pm

  3. oh and I didn’t mean lower class, I meant middle class. very few poor people, very few rich people.

    Comment by Stefan Constantinescu — 16 March 2010 @ 12:57 pm

  4. I find that much of what I do is part of “living long enough to live forever” and every day has its life-extending duties: Monday = weight training to fight brittle bones, muscle loss and a bad back. Tuesday = stationary bike, Wednesday = kickboxing and yoga/pilates, Thursday = high impact aerobics, Friday = step aerobics, Saturday = long walk, and Sunday hopefully one of the above unless I decide to be lazy!
    Morning = wholemeal bread, tea and soya milk (VERY good to lower cholesterol), then an apple, a carrot, a pear and dark chocolate 85%. Lunch = oily fish or tofu or lean turkey/chicken or quorn + tons of vegetables, berries, fat-free yogurt or yofu, a banana and green tea. Evening: a pot of chamomile tea + wholegrain pasta, rice or toast with more vegetables and pulses, and some dried fruits. And three tea spoons of cod liver oil and two capsules of fish oil a day. And only one glass of red wine a week, lots of mineral water, meditation every day and avoiding stressful situations.
    And reading lots of non-fiction to keep the brain alert.
    All this not to miss the day of the great ESCAPE VELOCITY 🙂

    Comment by Catarina Lamm — 16 March 2010 @ 4:21 pm

    • Catarina – I feel healthier just by reading this list!

      Sadly my present lifestyle is a great deal further from the healthy end of the spectrum.

      Comment by David Wood — 17 March 2010 @ 2:27 pm

  5. > •Take a collection of pills in the morning, including ginseng, mutivitamins, garlic, and ginkgo biloba;

    Is this under a kind of precautionary rationale or have you noticed the effects of any of these?

    I tend to take multivitamins and minerals when I know I am feeling a bit run down.
    My main exercise is walking and gardening. Both also have quite a calming effect, though some would say I don’t need to be any more laid back than I already am :-).

    I think I’ve seen dental flossing on a list of things to do to improve longevity – because of the correlation of heart and gum disease.

    I’ve been taking statins for about 9 months now, after my cholesterol spiked alarmingly – I think it may have been due to another biochemical problem I have. I’m getting a certain amount of the muscle pain side-effect, but so far not enough to compromise the exercise. My odd biochemistry does at least have the advantage of prompting the regular check-ups which, as you say, are a potentially valuable early warning system.


    Comment by Peter jackson — 16 March 2010 @ 10:30 pm

    • Pute,

      Sorry, I can’t offer any definite rationale for any of the pills I take. It’s all anecdotal. (Apart from the statins, which a GP prescribed.)

      I hear so much different advice from different people. Much of it sounds sensible and plausible, but we all know that just because something sounds “sensible and plausible”, it doesn’t make it true.

      I’ve edited my original posting to add in “Pay attention to gum health, by cleaning between teeth as well as the teeth themselves” since I’ve had several discussions along exactly these lines with dental hygienists.

      Comment by David Wood — 17 March 2010 @ 2:34 pm

  6. My answer is slightly different (note these all are just informed opinions, I don’t claim to have any specific scientific basis for these recommendations):

    Good diet
    That means plenty of fruit and veg (proverbial five-a-day), less meat, fish at least once a week, try and avoid fatty foods, (especially fat that is solid at room temperature), avoid processed foods (which are high in fats, sugar and salt), avoid ready-meals. Avoid take aways. General dietary recommendation (International Conference on Foods, Nutrition and Performance, 1991) is that diet should obtain 12-15% of energy from protein, 15-30% from fat and 60-70% from carbohydrate.

    The exercise should be something you enjoy – for me its mainly cycling, but golf and walking are good too (I think walking is a much underrated exercise). I also think it is important to get seriously “out of breath” at least once a week – unfortunately neither walking nor golf can achieve this – but walking fast up a fairly long steepish hill at least once a week would be the next best thing. The benefits of exercise are substantial, according to Joe Friel (in “The Cyclist’s Training Bible) it reduces the decline in athletic performance in the over 30s from the norm of 10% per decade to 6% per decade (although he does admit that there are not that many longitudinal studies from which to derive data). That’s a huge difference: if you create a model where death occurs when athletic ability reaches a certain percentage of the level held at 30 years of age (I know, this is a very crude model), then this results in almost an extra 30 years of life expectancy.

    No smoking, moderation in alcohol consumption.

    Avoid fads (that includes food fads, diet fads, exercise fads and supplement fads).
    Consistent long term application of the basics is more beneficial than jumping on the latest bandwagon.

    Have one day a week which is work-free. This is a day in which work is absolutely not allowed to intrude, no matter how much pressure or how tight the deadline. It can be Saturday or Sunday, but should be reserved as personal time – for family, friends, hobbies, enjoyment etc. (The discipline of having this day will force you to organise the work around it.) The basis for the weekly rest day is twofold: (i) from the observation of the benefits it brings to religious friends and work colleagues who observe the Sabbath (benefits include better home life, being less stressed *and* greater productivity) and (ii) from books written about sports training (in particular cycling and marathon running) – the universal advice is that any training plan must include one rest day (ie a day when you don’t train) a week.

    Periodisation. This is an extension of the one rest day a week idea, and again it comes from sports training advice. The body can work very hard, but it needs time to recover, and these recovery periods should be planned. A good training plan has weekly, monthly and annual cycles. The weekly cycle involves one rest day a week (as above). The monthly cycle involves one recovery week a month – that is one week where the workload is intentionally reduced (this allows the body to recover and provides a firm basis for the next cycle. It also reduces stress and risk of injury). I think this idea translates well to the workplace, especially when working on an extended project. The annual cycle involves one month of rest every year. This is not a complete abstinence from training, but a very much reduced workload and a change of activity. In the workplace this translates to an annual holiday (at least an annual two week holiday in which *no* work is done – this needs planning in the workplace, but is achievable).

    Keep a regular sleep pattern. Generally try to go to sleep and get up the same time each day.

    Avoid dietary supplements (the only supplement I take is half a one-a-day multivitamin a day). I don’t think there is any good data that supports the benefits of supplements and I think the risk of long term problems outweighs any supposed benefits.

    Moderation in all things (including moderation).

    Avoid anti-biotics (unless extremely ill, or in case of infection). I think the convenience of getting better slightly more quickly is outweighed by the harm caused by the destruction of all the beneficial bacteria in the gut. But I hardly ever get ill anyway, so for me this advice is almost moot.

    Note that much of the above (diet, exercise, rest, sleep, moderation) is at least indirectly related to stress. Like you I think stress is a contributory factor to lifespan. I also agree that not all stress is bad, indeed I think stress (even at very high levels) can be beneficial. What I think is definitely unhealthy is consistent long term high levels of stress – the body needs to be given a break to recover (and this is one of the drivers behind the almost universal adoption of periodisation in the training plans of endurance athletes).

    Comment by Martin Budden — 17 March 2010 @ 7:50 am

    • Martin – Many thanks for the comprehensive list of suggestions.

      I’m sure you’re right about the need to take breaks. Life shouldn’t be a marathon, but is instead a series of short sprints.

      >Consistent long term application of the basics is more beneficial than jumping on the latest bandwagon

      Agreed – that’s why it’s so useful to develop routines. Even a small thing like brushing teeth is an example of a health-inducing routine.

      Generally try to go to sleep and get up the same time each day

      I’ve heard other people offer that advice, but I’m not convinced about it. (Perhaps that’s because my own sleeping schedule, like that of many a software engineer, has been erratic for as long as I can remember.)

      Comment by David Wood — 17 March 2010 @ 2:38 pm

  7. A couple of observations from my own experience:

    Finding the time: I always try to use other tasks as a vehicle for exercise. If I need provisions I usually choose a 3 mile round trip rather than the local shop, with the added benefit of carrying the load. When working in an office I always use the stairs (Working for a time near the top of Capital House was quite challenging in that regard). These things add up.

    Sleep: I too used to have an erratic and mostly nocturnal cycle. Since working mainly from home I’ve become much more attuned to daylight and more aware of my own daily rhythms of metabolism. I feel better for it and I certainly don’t have to force myself to go to bed at a regular time, it just seems to happen naturally (though I doubt I will ever be a true “morning person”). The disadvantage is that winter depression is more noticeable than before. So I’d suggest that keeping yourself in natural light as far as possible may be valuable.

    Comment by Peter Jackson — 19 March 2010 @ 11:16 am

  8. Thoughts on statins and personal longevity.

    Any drug has positive benefits and harmful side effects. The decision to take a drug depends on the balance between the benefits and side effects for the *particular patient in question*.

    In a population, such as ours, where there is widespread obesity, poor diet and lifestyle and people with raised cholesterol levels, there is a public health benefit gained from encouraging the prescription of statins. There is even a public health benefit if statins are slightly overprescribed. There is a personal health benefit to someone who has very high levels of cholesterol. But for someone on the margin, someone like yourself (I presume), who has slightly raised levels of cholesterol, I think closer examination is required.

    In his article “Taking on Prostate Cancer” ( http://www.phoenix5.org/articles/Fortune96Grove.html )

    “…The whole thing reminds me of the uncomfortable feeling I experienced when I first sought out investment advice. After a while, it dawned on me that financial advisers, well intentioned and competent as they might have been, were all favoring their own financial instruments. I concluded that I had to undertake the generalist’s job myself; I had to take the high-level management of my investments into my own hands. Similarly, given the structure of the medical practice associated with prostate cancer, that’s the only viable choice any patient has. If you look after your investments, I think you should look after your life as well. Investigate things, come to your own conclusions, don’t take any one recommendation as gospel.”

    I think the recommendation is a good one, especially for someone like yourself who wants to like a long time. You doctor may be giving advice that raises your life expectancy from (say) 75 to (say) 85, but how does his advice affect your life expectancy at 85?

    My view is that you should make a concerted effort to lower your cholesterol using diet and lifestyle changes, and *only if this fails* should you consider statins. (Note you’ll probably need 6 months to a year of lifestyle changes before you can make a good evaluation.) This view is somewhat confirmed by the NICE guidelines created in association with the British Hypertension Society, see: http://www.bhsoc.org/Latest_BHS_management_Guidelines.stm . The report is somewhat technical but worth reading by anyone seeking practical measures for personal longevity.

    Note also that even if you decide to continue to take statins, there are a variety of different statins which vary in their effectiveness in reducing cholesterol, their side effects and their costs. You may wish to research this.

    Comment by Martin Budden — 31 March 2010 @ 9:20 pm

    • Hi Martin,

      Your advice on statins matches what my GP said when I saw him a few days ago. (It was a different doctor who initially prescribed them to me.) I’m going to try to improve my cholesterol by improving my diet, free from statins, with another test in 6 months time.

      Many thanks for the link to the Andy Grove article – which was a fascinating read (especially since I, too, have a slightly elevated PSA.)

      Comment by David Wood — 1 April 2010 @ 12:12 am

  9. Hi David,

    Interesting discussion. I wonder have any of your thoughts/recommendations updates following the talk (as you suggested they might)? Interesting to see the differences in opinions here: some people advocating healthy whole grains and low fat, others recommending avoiding grains at all costs and having a high “healthy fat” diet. Given the amazing things we’ve achieved in science, it continually perplexes me that we’re so at sea on “what should we eat/do to be healthy”!

    Comment by Sean O hEigeartaigh — 16 April 2014 @ 11:36 am

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