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20 January 2019

Rejuvenation. Now. Easier than we think?

Filed under: aging, books — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 11:25 pm

Chronic poor health is caused by the accumulation of biological damage in our body. Eventually the damage builds to such an extent that it kills us. Before reaching that nadir, the damage weakens us, slows us down, and makes us more vulnerable to all kinds of illness.

Accordingly, if we want more vitality, for longer, we need to find therapies that undo the biological damage in our bodies. And we need to apply these therapies on a regular basis.

These two paragraphs summarise a view about health that is becoming increasingly common these days. One of the champions of this “find therapies to fix the damage” school is the biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey – chief science officer of the SENS Research Foundation. I write about this approach in, for example, Chapter 8, “Towards an abundance of health” of my own most recent book, “Sustainable Superabundance”.

The kinds of damage-repair therapies that transhumanist tend to talk about involve breakthrough new technologies – such as stem cell therapies, manipulation of genetics and epigenetics, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and 3D bio-printing.

But what if there is already a very promising damage-repair treatment, whose power we frequently overlook?

Step forward Professor Matthew Walker of the Neuroscience department at UC Berkeley. Walker is also the founder and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science. Walker recently summarised the state-of-art understanding about sleep (and dreams), in his book “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams”. I started reading that book following a tip from London Futurists member Mark Goodman. That tip was one of the best I received in the whole of last year. Many thanks, Mark!

According to the wide research that Walker summarises in “Why We Sleep”, getting sufficient sound sleep on a regular basis is a great all-round boost to our health. Skimping on sleep – getting an average of only six hours a night, instead of the eight hours recommended – stores up lots of longer term damage. (For example: greater propensity to cancer, dementia, obesity, diabetes, heart condition…)

It’s not just a question of quantity of sleep. It’s a question of quality. Sometimes we have a sort of sleep – for example, when under the influence of alcohol – but that sleep doesn’t perform the rejuvenation miracles of good quality sleep.

It’s also a question of the different types of sleep – including the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep that accompanies dreams, and the four different levels of NREM (not-REM) sleep (sleep when we’re not dreaming). The different kinds of sleep are associated with different kinds of healing.

To be clear, sleep isn’t just for healing. Many kinds of memory are improved by the right kinds of sleep. And sleep can be a great boost to creativity too.

The number of diseases linked to poor quality sleep is both staggering and frightening. People who scorn getting a good night’s sleep – people who boast that they can get by on, say, five hours a night on average – are deluding themselves. If you don’t believe this, look into the research that Walker assembles and discusses.

Of course, there are limits to the kinds of repair that sleeping and dreaming can perform. These fine therapies, by themselves, won’t boost anyone’s life expectancy from 75, say, to 125, or beyond. For that kind of change, we’ll need the initiatives being researched by SENS (and developed by an increasing number of commercial companies). But if you want to increase the chance of you (and your loved ones) living long enough to benefit from the eventual availability of SENS-type treatments, changing your sleep habits could make all the difference.

As well as increasing your life expectancy, these improved habits have the potential to improve your focus, your memory, your creativity, and the way you interact positively and supportively with others.

Changing your diet is another way in which you might increase your life expectancy. As an aside, the best single book I have come across on that topic is “The Longevity Code: The New Science of Aging” by Kris Verburgh. (Verburgh’s book actually has a lot more in it than just analysis of the relation between diet and healthy aging. It should definitely be on your bookshelf.)

But what’s striking is that, although the connection between diet and healthy aging has been widely discussed, the connection between sleep and healthy aging has been relatively ignored. Walker’s book should start to amend that unfortunate state of ignorance.

There are another three big reasons why transhumanists (and people who share the same broad interests) should read “Why we sleep”. First, the book offers (directly and indirectly) lots of insights about the nature of consciousness, as explored through the discussion of consciousness in different sleep states, including dreaming. I’m sure that there are insights ready to be sparked by some of these sections, for AI researchers struggling with particular conceptual problems.

Second, Walker discusses broader social factors connected with sleep (and why so many people sleep badly these days). The sheer scale of lives lost by drivers drifting into “micro sleeps” is astonishing: accidents caused by drowsiness exceed those caused by drugs and alcohol. The damage caused by sleeping pills is another eye-opener. It also turns out there’s a lot of inertia in society – society often resists changes that would be in its own best interest! The adverse practice of the medical industry pushing junior doctors to the limit, sleepwise, is just one case. But the book also has some great examples, in the closing chapters, about positive social change. One involves the time at which schools start. It turns out that moving the start time later by 30 minutes, or one hour, can have a big impact on successful learning, as well as on the prevalence of teenage depression (not to mention the likelihood of students having car accidents en route to school).

Third, Walker identifies both risks and opportunities from new technologies, as regards changing sleep quality. Small doses of electricity applied to the scalp can significantly improve sleep. Other mechanisms look like they can improve our dreams. In the not-so-distant future, the ways in which we sleep and dream might be quite different from today. Technology, if used wisely, could lead us to patterns of sleeping and dreaming in which rejuvenation happens more profoundly.

To conclude: I really liked the first few chapters of “Why We Sleep”, and wondered how the book could continue at the same level of engagement over the remainder of its 340 pages of content. But it did – it was thoroughly interesting all the way through!

Image source: Claudio_Scott on Pixabay.

15 February 2015

Ten years of quantified self

Filed under: books, healthcare — Tags: , , , , , , , — David Wood @ 12:02 am

Ten years. Actually 539 weeks. I’ve been recording my weight every morning from 23 October 2004, and adding a new data point to my chart every weekend.

10 years of Quantified Self

I’ve been recording my weight ever since I read that people who monitor their weight on a regular basis are more likely to avoid it ballooning upwards. There’s an instant feedback which allows me to seek adjustments in my personal health regime. With ten years of experience under my (varyingly-sized) belt, I’m strongly inclined to continue the experiment.

The above chart started life on my Psion Series 5mx PDA. Week after week, I added data, and watched as the chart expanded. Eventually, the graph hit the limits of what could be displayed on a single screen on the S5mx (width = 480 pixels), so I had to split the chart into two. And then three. Finally, after a number of hardware failures in my stock of S5mx devices, I transferred the data into an Excel spreadsheet on my laptop several months ago. Among other advantages, it once again lets me see the entire picture.

20150214_084625This morning, 14th Feb 2015, I saw the scales dip down to a point I had last reached in September 2006. This result seems to confirm the effectiveness of my latest dietary regime – which I’ve been following since July. Over these seven months, I’ve shrunk from a decidedly unhealthy (and unsightly) 97 kg down to 81 kg.

In terms of the BMI metric (Body Mass Index), that’s a reduction from 31.2 – officially “obese” – down to 26.4. 26.4 is still “marginally overweight”, since, for men, the top end of the BMI scale for a “healthy weight for adults” is 24.9. With my height, that would mean a weight of 77 kg. So there’s still a small journey for me to travel. But I’m happy to celebrate this incremental improvement!

The NHS page on BMI issues this sobering advice:

BMI of 30 or more: a BMI above 30 is classified as obese. Being obese puts you at a raised risk of health problems such as heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Losing weight will bring significant health improvements..

BMI score of 25 or more: your BMI is above the ideal range and this score means you may be overweight. This means that you’re heavier than is healthy for someone of your height. Excess weight can put you at increased risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. It’s time to take action…

As the full chart of my weight over the last ten years shows, I’ve had three major attempts at “action” to achieve a healthier body mass.

The first: For a while in 2004 and 2005, I restricted myself to two Herbalife meal preparations a day – even when I was travelling.

Later, in 2011, I ran across the book by Gary Taubes, “Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It”, which made a great deal of sense to me. Taubes emphasises that some kinds of calories are more damaging to health than others. Specifically, carbohydrates, such as wheat, change the body metabolism to make it retain more weight. I also read “Wheat belly” by William Davis. Here’s an excerpt from the description of that book:

Renowned cardiologist William Davis explains how eliminating wheat from our diets can prevent fat storage, shrink unsightly bulges and reverse myriad health problems.

Every day we eat food products made of wheat. As a result millions of people experience some form of adverse health effect, ranging from minor rashes and high blood sugar to the unattractive stomach bulges that preventative cardiologist William Davis calls ‘wheat bellies’. According to Davis, that fat has nothing to do with gluttony, sloth or too much butter: it’s down to the whole grain food products so many people eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

After witnessing over 2,000 patients regain their health after giving up wheat, Davis reached the disturbing conclusion that wheat is the single largest contributor to the nationwide obesity epidemic – and its elimination is key to dramatic weight loss and optimal health.

In Wheat Belly, Davis exposes the harmful effects of what is actually a product of genetic tinkering being sold to the public as ‘wheat’ and provides readers with a user-friendly, step-by-step plan to navigate a new, wheat-free lifestyle. Benefits include: substantial weight loss, correction of cholesterol abnormalities, relief from arthritis, mood benefits and prevention of heart disease.

As a result, I cut back on carbohydrates – and was pleased to see my weight plummet once again. For a while – until I re-acquired many of my former carb-enjoying habits, whoops.

That takes me to regime number three. This time, I’ve followed the more recent trend known as “5+2”. According to this idea, people can eat normally for, say, five days in the week, and then eat a very reduced amount of calories on the other two days (known as “fasting days”). My initial worry about this approach was that I wasn’t sure I’d eat sensible foods on the two low-calorie days.

That’s when I ran across the meal preparations of the LighterLife company. These include soups, shakes, savoury meals, porridge, and bars. Each of these meals is just 150-200 calories. LighterLife suggest that people eat, on their low-calorie days, four of these meals. These preparations include sufficient proteins, fibre, and 100% of the recommended daily intake of key vitamins and minerals.

To be clear, I am not a medical doctor, and I urge anyone who is considering adopting a diet to obtain their own medical advice. I also recognise that different people have different metabolisms, so a diet that works for one person won’t necessarily work for someone else. However, I can share my own personal experience, in case it inspires others to do their own research:

  • Instead of 5+2, I generally follow 3+4. That is, I have four low-calorie days each week, along with three other days in which I tend to indulge myself (except that, on these other days, I still try to avoid consuming too many carbs, such as wheat, bread, rice, and potatoes)
  • On the low-calorie days, I generally eat around 11.30am, 2.30pm, 5.30pm, and 8.30pm
  • If I’m working at home, I’ll include soups, a savoury meal, and shakes; if I’m away from home, I’ll eat three (or four) different bars, that I pack into my back-pack at the beginning of the day
  • On the low-calorie days, it’s important to drink as well as to eat, but I avoid any drinks with calories in them. In practice, I find drinks of herbal teas to be very effective at dulling any sense of hunger I’m experiencing
  • In addition to eating less, I continue to do a lot of walking (e.g. between Waterloo Station and meeting locations in Central London), as well as other forms of exercise (like on the golf driving range or golf course).

Note: I know that BMI is far from being a complete representation of personal healthiness. However, I view it as a good starting point.

To round off my recommendations for diet-related books that I have particularly enjoyed reading, I’ll add “Mindless eating” by Brian Wansink to the two I mentioned earlier. I listened to the Audible version of that book. It’s hilarious, but thought-provoking, and the research it describes seems very well founded:

Every day, we each make around 200 decisions about eating. But studies have shown that 90% of these decisions are made without any conscious choice. Dr Brian Wansink lays bare the facts about our true eating habits to show that awareness of our patterns can allow us to lose weight effectively and without serious changes to our lives. Dr Wansink’s revelations include:

  • Food mistakes we all make in restaurants, supermarkets and at home
  • How we are manipulated by brand, appearance and parental habits more than price and our choices
  • Our emotional relationship with food and how we can overcome it to revitalise our diets.

Forget calorie counting and starving yourself and learn the truth about why we overeat in this fascinating, innovative guide.

Three books

I’ll finish by thanking my friends, family, and colleagues for their gentle and thoughtful encouragement, over the years, for me to keep an eye on my body mass, and on the general goodness of what I eat. “Health is the first wealth”.

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