The science of longevity: lessons from Methuselah
“People don’t grow old. When they stop growing, they become old.” – Anonymous
LESSONS FROM METHUSELAH
According to Genesis 5: 27, Methuselah, son of Enoch and grandfather of Noah, lived for 969 years. Adam, Seth, Lamech and several others also lived into their 900s, making modern centenarians look like kids. So, what was Methuselah’s ancient secret? I doubt if green smoothies, jogging or some exotic Chinese potion were part of the plan. According to the scriptures, after his father’s death, Methuselah is designated by God as a priest. Furthermore, Methuselah asks his father for a blessing, and is given instructions on how to live righteously. Now after some 5000 years of human contemplation, what have we learned about the enchanting topic of longevity? What threads of insight or knowledge have grown, like the branches of an ancient vine, through the annals of time?
Modern researchers focus on the importance of nutrition, exercise, stress reduction, cholesterol, cortisol, blood pressure, homocysteine, telomeres and DNA repair, while others find that optimism, meditation, passion and human connection may be more powerful predictors of a healthy and long life. As a physician for the past 45 years, it is my strong opinion that the deepest roots for longevity arise from human consciousness as the creative force for the infinite variety of human experience. And, just as Methuselah was designated a priest and told to live righteously, we too can access a spiritual source within and in so doing we unshackle the creative power of consciousness leading to untold possibilities, including longevity.
Therefore, in this writing I will present time tested and scientifically supported tools for creating longevity, starting with diet, exercise and the medical perspective. I will leave the most powerful for last which is consciousness and our connection to Spirit.
NUTRITION – CALORIC RESTRICTION
“Don’t dig your grave with your knife and fork.” – English Proverb
The wisdom of our English ancestors has been proven again and again by modern scientists: eat less and live longer. Reducing the number of calories consumed by all species tested so far, including, yeast, rotifers, nematodes, fruit flies, spiders, fish, rodents (hamsters, rats, mice), dogs, and chimpanzees, as well as humans will improve health and extend life span by 30 to 40%. The caloric restriction varies between 30 and 50% and may be significantly below that for maximum growth, but enough for maintaining overall health. The reduced calorie diets create “under-nutrition without malnutrition.”
Caloric restriction is far and away the most researched and successful approach to life extension discovered so far. Thousands of published articles over 70 years have proven again and again that it works in every species tested. So why aren’t we all jumping on the caloric restriction bandwagon? We can’t stop eating; that’s why. We are flooded daily with images of yummy food and somehow along the way food has become self-directed psychotherapy. Surrounded by junk food, we eat when we are lonely, frustrated or depressed. It rewards us after a difficult day. Since the days of suckling at the breast of mother, food is curiously associated with love. It seems that if we are deficient in love in our lives, whether for another or for ourselves, we revert to the primal programming of the infant and eating moves beyond simply fueling the body and becomes an unconscious surrogate for love and well-being.
But don’t worry, it is the same for chimpanzees. The caged chimps used in caloric restriction research had no choice. Living in captivity and given the opportunity to eat at will, they to will overeat, gain weight and often develop the same chronic diseases that we do. In contrast, chimps living in nature seldom gain weight. Living in nature affords them guidance in the principles of longevity: rich social lives, food prepared by mother nature and lots of exercise. Basically, they can live as they wish in accordance with the biological intelligence they are born with.
Perhaps many of us are caged as well. However, the bars of our cages are the conscious and unconscious limiting beliefs conditioned into us from childhood which create the all too common dramas of modern life: unfulfilling employment, dysfunctional relationships, loss of creativity in life and chronic disease. We too are lacking in the natural guidance provided by honoring our emotions, following our excitement and generally loving ourselves and others. However, unlike the chimps we have the keys to our cages and we can fling the doors open. But I am getting ahead of myself. More on the high-powered tools for longevity later in this writing.
Back to nutrition – you can achieve 30% caloric restriction by switching to a whole food, plant-based diet. You can eat as much as you want of gluten-free whole grains such as brown rice, millet, oats and quinoa, as well as a great variety of vegetables and beans. And, this happens to be the diet of the longest-lived peoples on the earth.
These are the areas on our beautiful planet where people live long and free of common chronic diseases, often reaching into the 110s and 120s and beyond:
- Okinawa, the island off the coast of Japan
- Hunza Valley in the northern mountains of Pakistan
- Vilcabamba, “The Valley of Longevity”, tucked away deep in southern Ecuador
- Nicoya Peninsula on the West side of Costa Rica
- Icaria, the Greek Island
- Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California
- Sardinia, the Italian island in the Mediterranean
These long living societies eat organic, mostly vegan, whole foods, including grains, vegetables, beans with minimal animal products and fat. Their days usually requires lots of movement and exercise and they live in close-knit communities. Most of them also live with a strong pritual focus in their lives.
Beyond longevity, the following is a summary of the benefits of caloric restriction:
- Reduction in body temperature.
- Reduction in fat mass, including visceral adiposity,
- Increase in muscle mass.
- Restoration of hormonal secretions that tend to fall with age (DHEA and HGH).
- Enhanced cognitive function and mood.
- Improved ability for physical activity.
- Stimulation of growth factors e.g. BDNF
MOVEMENT AND EXERCISE
From the first appearance of vertebrate life on earth almost until the present century, our ancestors have been active and strong – “athletic” . . .. Viewed from the perspective of evolutionary time, sedentary existence, possible for great numbers of people only during the past century, represents a transient, unnatural aberration. – Boyd Eaton, Marjorie Shostak, and Melvin Konner MD, The Paleolithic Prescription, A Program of Diet and Exercise
Intuitively, we know that exercise promotes longevity. And, the scientific literature is crystal clear in support of our intuition. Like caloric restriction the science is conclusive. However, I doubt if Methuselah went jogging and the people of Okinawa or the Hunza Valley are seldom seen organizing marathons.
Long prior to the “unnatural aberration” of the modern sedentary human confronted with the new epidemic of “sitting disease”, people were physically strong and “exercise” was not a separate part of the day. It was woven into the fabric of daily life. And, indeed, the human body is a masterpiece of engineering with bones that can withstand compression forces twice as well as granite, and 600 muscles that permit movement ranging from Olympic athletics to playing the piano and brushing your teeth. Your heart, arteries, veins, intestines, lymphatic circulation, bones, joints, liver and brain depend on vigorous movement to function well. The body is designed for movement and our ancestors survived because of this natural endowment. They ran from danger and worked vigorously to support family and community.
Our hunter/gatherer ancestors looked like the professional athletes that we watch on TV. They walked, ran and lifted every day, sometimes for hours and days at a time. Their fitness program was life and survival. This is the wisdom of the body.
Daily life in the long-lived societies requires movement. Instead of sitting at desks and computers, they walk everywhere, working the fields, visiting neighbors and family, and taking care of the requirements of daily living. Walking, lifting, carrying, pushing, and perhaps playing punctuate their days like automobiles, elevators and desk chairs do ours.
In modern times, we “don’t have time to exercise”, and yet we seem to find time to be sick. Our ancestors died of infections and trauma, while we succumb to cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, all of which are prevented by exercise.
STRESS AND CORTISOL
“Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older.” – Hans Seyle
The fight or flight human stress system has insured human survival on earth for tens of thousands of years; yet in modern times this powerful system is killing us through stress related diseases. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors ran from danger with the help of cortisol and adrenaline, while we modern “hunters” worry about an endless stream of imaginary dangers while sitting on the sofa or driving the car. All the while cortisol is doing its job of preparing us to run or fight, even though neither is appropriate for our modern “dangers”.
For us, “fight or flight” has become “anger or fear”, or, more commonly, worry, anxiety, apprehension, frustration, guilt (anger at self) and resentment. Unless you can stop worrying about money, the kids, work problems, or, feeling frustrated about traffic and busy schedules, you need to understand the effects of cortisol and why it is considered by some to be the death hormone.
I have talked to thousands of patients over the years and most of them cannot imagine living without worry. We live in the Age of Stress and our bodies are not designed for it. Cortisol is the molecular messenger that tells every cell in your body you are in danger. Research has shown that cortisol levels in the blood steadily increase as we get older. The average 50-year-old has 17 times as much cortisol in his or her blood at bedtime as the average teenager. It is difficult to sleep when you are in danger.
Unless you live in Bagdad, Somalia, or the ghettos of an American city, the clear majority of your stress comes from your mind – what you think about day after day. As Eckhart Tolle writes in his remarkable book, The Power of Now, we are all afflicted with “thinking disease”. We worry about what may go wrong in the future, or, we feel resentment, guilt or frustration about what did go wrong in the past. Your body cannot distinguish the difference between a man pointing a gun at you in a dark alley, and your worried thoughts about financial problems. So it is important for you to understand what excessive cortisol is doing to your body. Consider the following effects of high cortisol over time:
- Increased appetite and food cravings
- Increased body fat, especially in the abdomen
- Decreased muscle mass
- Decreased bone density, or, osteoporosis
- Increased cholesterol and triglycerides
- Increased depression
- Increased anxiety
- Mood swings
- Decreased sex drive and sexual performance
- Weakened immunity and increased infections
- Memory and learning impairment
- Brain atrophy
- Increased symptoms of PMS
- Increased menopausal side effects such as hot flashes and night sweats
It is easy to see how these powerful and recurrent changes in the body can contribute over time to a range of diseases, including:
- Coronary artery disease – angina and heart attack
- High blood pressure
- Insulin resistance and eventually diabetes
- Depression and anxiety
- Alzheimer’s disease due to shrinkage, or, atrophy of brain cells
- Osteoporosis due to accelerated bone breakdown
- Erectile dysfunction and loss of libido, or sex drive
- Recurrent infections due to impaired immunity
- Mild cognitive impairment with poor focus, concentration and memory
There is little doubt that persistent and recurrent stress, the biggest toxin of all, will shorten your life. Let us look at some of the research on stress and longevity.
Work-Related Exhaustion and Telomere Length: A Population-Based Study – Kirsi Ahola, PLOS, July 11, 2012
- Researchers measured the length telomeres,
- individuals with the most job stress had the shortest telomeres
- Those who did not experience work exhaustion had longer telomeres.
Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress, Elissa S. Epel, et al. Proc Nat Acad Sciences 12/2004
- 39 women ages 20 to 50 who had been experiencing grinding stress for years because they were caring for a child suffering from a serious chronic illness, such as autism or cerebral palsy, and 19 other very similar women whose children were healthy.
- Measured levels of telomerase
- The longer a woman had been caring for a sick child, the shorter her telomeres, the lower her levels of telomerase and the higher her levels of “oxidative stress.”
Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress, Elissa S. Epel, et al. Proc Nat Acad Sciences 12/2004
- The greater a woman’s perception of her stress in the study, the worse she scored on all these factors.
- Women with the highest perceived stress had telomeres equivalent to someone 10 years older.
- “It was just the same with oxidative stress — the worse the perceived psychological stress, the greater the oxidative stress. “
Anticipation of Stressful Situations Accelerates Cellular Aging Brain, Aoife O’Donovan, Brain, Behavior and Immunity May, 2012
- The study involved 50 women, about half of them caring for relatives with dementia, and therefore presumably deal with daily stress were told that they would have to engage in public speaking or math problems.
- the researchers assessed cellular age by measuring telomeres, which are the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes. Short telomeres index older cellular age and are associated with increased risk for a host of chronic diseases of aging, including cancer, heart disease and stroke.
- those who felt most threatened by the anticipation of the stressful event exhibited greater signs of aging on the cellular level.
- The researchers proposed that greater anticipated threat levels in daily life may promote cellular aging in chronically stressed persons.
Cortisol levels during human aging predict hippocampal atrophy and memory deficits, Sonia J. Lupien, et al Nature Neuroscience 1, 69 – 73 (1998)
Elevated glucocorticoid (cortisol) levels produce hippocampal dysfunction and correlate with individual deficits in spatial learning in aged rats. Previously we related persistent cortisol increases to memory impairments in elderly humans studied over five years. Here we demonstrate that aged humans with significant prolonged cortisol elevations showed reduced hippocampal volume and deficits in hippocampus-dependent memory tasks compared to normal-cortisol controls. Moreover, the degree of hippocampal atrophy correlated strongly with both the degree of cortisol elevation over time and current basal cortisol levels. Therefore, basal cortisol elevation may cause hippocampal damage and impair hippocampus-dependent learning and memory in humans.
MEDICAL PERSPECTIVE: THEORIES OF AGING
- CORTISOL AND STRESS REDUCTION
Stress is the biggest toxin of all and deeply woven into the mind. High levels of cortisol over time will weaken the immune system, lower hormone levels, atrophy brain cells and contribute to most every disease.
- BLOOD GLUCOSE REGULATION
Maintain low normal blood glucose levels to avoid cross linking of sugars with proteins which will cause cell and organ damage [advanced glycation end products, or AGEs).
- REDUCE CHRONIC INFLAMMATION
Inflammation is at the heart of all diseases including chronic illness.
- DETOXIFICATION OF CHEMICALS AND HEAVY METALS
Reduces Free radical oxidative damage which is thought to be a key element of aging
- HOMOSYSTEINE AND METHYLATION
Transfer of methyl groups is the most fundamental biological reaction in the trillions of cells in your body. Compromised methylation will disturb neurotransmitter production, DNA repair, cellular energy production, detoxification of chemicals and heavy metals, immune function, cell membrane repair. Poor methylation may also shorten your life.
- IMMUNE SYSTEM
The immune system weakens due to persistently high cortisol as well as aging in general and is reflected in thymus shrinkage, auto-immunity and increasing incidence of cancer.
- HORMONAL DECLINE
DHEA is a natural steroid that plays a fundamental role in the maintenance of hormonal balance and youthful vitality. In addition to being the precursor to androgens and estrogens, it supports the immune system, modulates inflammation, protects bones, and helps us adapt to stress. Aging disrupts hormonal balance, with the levels of several critical hormones dramatically reduced in comparison with youthful levels. By age 80, levels of DHEA fall by as much as 80%–90% compared to what they were during young adulthood
Menopause and andropause greatly reduce estrogen, testosterone and progesterone, but the process is accelerated by stress. Optimal hormone level are associated with longer telomeres.
- MITOCHONDRIAL FUNCTION
Mitochondria convert the energy-rich nutrients in our food into the cellular energy source, ATP. Free radicals and oxidative stress are necessary by products of “burning” food and oxygen and are eliminated by intrinsic antioxidants as well as antioxidants from our diet. Antioxidant deficiency for a variety of reasons can damage mitochondria and reduce energy production needed for healthy organ function and create “mutant” mitochondria which generate even more oxidative stress.
And, as we toss toxic chemicals into the environment polluting the land, water, land air of our planet, we find the same toxins in the tissues of our bodies creating further damage to mitochondrial energy production
- DNA REPAIR
Perhaps the greatest mystery of life is the 100 trillion feet (about 19 billion miles) of DNA packed into the nucleus of every cell in your body. DNA contains the instructions for growth, reproduction and survival. Since DNA is constantly making new copies for new cells, DNA repair is essential in order to maintain cell vitality and survival as well as cancer prevention. However, DNA repair declines with age for reasons not fully understood.
Research at Harvard Medical School reveals many of the DNA repair enzymes are dependent on the signaling molecule NAD. In addition to energizing DNA repair enzymes, NAD improves cellular energy production, reduces cell damaging inflammation, and increases neurotransmitter production, it also activates the longevity related Sirtuins 1-7 genes. Next to the power of consciousness, intravenous NAD is one the most promising treatments for longevity.
- TELOMERE LENGTH
The telomere is the region of highly repetitive DNA at the end of a chromosome which functions like a disposable buffer. Without telomeres, repeated cell division would quickly result in the loss of vital genetic information, which is needed to sustain a cell’s activities.
Age adjusted telomere length is the best method to date to determine accurately a person’s biological age which is compared to their chronological age. Serial evaluation of telomere length will determine how rapidly one ages relative to a normal population. Therapies directed at slowing the loss of telomere length will slow aging and age-related diseases
- DECLINE IN STEM CELLS
Adult stem cells are undifferentiated cells found throughout the body that divide to replenish dying cells and regenerate damaged tissues. Adult stem cells have been found throughout the body, including the brain, bone marrow, blood, blood vessels, muscles, skin, and the liver. Stem cell populations decline with age and they may become dysfunctional, which produces an impaired regenerative response to cellular and tissue or damage
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