Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Starving for the Fountain of Youth

Here is yet another story about our medical community’s obsessive search for the mythical fountain of youth. The Reuters article titled “Starving won't make people live longer–researchers” (which James Taranto points out is a rather obvious statement – “duh” in the common vernacular), researchers concluded that severe calorie restriction will only marginally increase life span.

A couple of years ago the National Geographic published an article about longevity. The article noted that researchers had significantly extended the lives of several species by restricting calorie intake. One researcher had experienced tremendous success with a particular species of chimps, but he admitted that they often go nearly berserk when food is being served up at mealtimes because of the hunger they are experiencing. The researcher said that he himself had tried to similarly restrict his calorie intake, but he simply couldn’t bear the incessant hunger pangs. Some readers felt that the research constituted cruelty to animals.

The Geographic made a point of suggesting that it was obvious that human lifespan would also be increased by severe calorie restriction. Since the implication was that this statement was more than a mere hypothesis, the magazine jumped to a conclusion, a practice that is quite common in the articles it publishes. In this case, the conclusion has proved faulty.

In the Reuters article, researchers at the University of California, realizing that calorie intake is just one of the myriad factors that help determine longevity, created a computer model that employed known factors to develop an idea of how calorie restriction impacts human lifespan.

They know, for example, the average calorie intake and lifespan for the average Japanese male. They know these same data for the average Sumo wrestler. They know that the average Okinawa male has a lower average calorie intake and a slightly longer lifespan than the average Japanese male.

Using these data, as well as a host of other variables, the researchers concluded that severe calorie restriction would increase lifespan only by about 7% rather than the 50% achieved for worms and mice because humans have different variables than the animal populations heretofore studied. The researchers said, “Our message is that suffering years of misery to remain super-skinny is not going to have a big payoff in terms of a longer life.” This is another one of those “duh” statements. At least it seems that the average person already instinctively knows this and lives accordingly.

I have no doubt that our society will continue its obsession with extending life. We will also continue to come up against an insurmountable wall. We will continue to pursue every avenue, regardless of cost and credulity. When you’ve got little or no faith in the next life, what else is there but this one?

I’m not suggesting that we should give up – eating, drinking, and being merry in anticipation of our impending mortality (see here). I have stated many times that I believe we should live reasonably healthy lives. Most of us already know what we should be doing.

I’m not suggesting that we should become a nation of health fanatics. While people in this group drive an industry, they drive most of the rest of us crazy. I know, because I have been in that group and have been a bane to others.

But almost every one of us can do something today to improve our future health and longevity prospects. And even if you think I am deluded, at least having faith in the next life provides a basis for hope beyond our current situation.

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