An Overly Great Focus On the Minutiae of Diet and Supplementation

Over at Sentient Developments you'll find a rendition of what might be termed the core points of healthy life extension. I myself have a long-standing version up at the Longevity Meme, and another back in the Fight Aging! archives. Simply put, cutting out the frills and lumping cryonics into longevity research in general:

I would go so far as to say that there are only three things that you can do today to be as sure as present science allows that you have increased your remaining healthy life expectancy. The gold standard for weight of scientific evidence is a narrow platform at present:

None of this should really be a surprise. I'd add a fourth item for modest supplementation, but any discussion of the scientific support there gets bogged down very quickly - it's an enormously broad and complex topic, beset by a noisy band of marketeers ready to tell you anything that will make you shell out for whatever it is they're selling today.

George Dvorsky's version at Sentient Developments is more detailed and helpful in the most part, but he falls into the deep pit that yawns for so many in the healthy life extension community: an overly great focus on the minutiae of diet and supplementation, and taking as gospel things that don't actually have a great deal of scientific support.

Look at how much of his post rests on blueberries and antioxidants versus Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence research - that blueberry or no blueberry choice might be right under your nose three times a day, but it's inconsequential in comparison to the pace and direction of scientific research. It's also inconsequential in comparison to whether or not you practice calorie restriction.

As a general rule, you should view studies on diet with great suspicion, especially those claiming long term health benefits from a single type of food X or food Y. The same goes for supplements. All too few of those studies properly control for differences in calorie intake, or other meaningful correlations. In cases where a good weight of evidence backs some form of benefit, that benefit is invariably dwarfed by the benefit supplied by exercise and calorie restriction. Why do people spend so much time and energy on clawing back 0.1% of the 10% of life span they're dinging themselves by overeating and not exercising? It's a mystery.

It is reasonable to state, bluntly, that you or I can reliably engineer no greater chance of improving our natural long-term health than by simply eating sensibly, practicing calorie restriction (which pretty much forces eating sensibly on you), exercising regularly, and taking a sane multivitamin. Anything more than that, and you have to accept that you're tinkering with no real way of knowing whether you're gaining any benefit. Not that there's anything wrong with that as a hobby, but don't delude yourself into thinking that you can eat as much as you like and top it off with blueberries to at least make something better.

For example, let's look at antioxidants. It is becoming clear that ingesting antioxidants has very little - and possibly a minor negative - effect on healthy longevity. On the other hand, Targeting antioxidants to mitochondria by gene therapy or clever chemical engineering slows aging in mice by 30%. Needless to say, the antioxidants you swallow are going nowhere near your mitochondria, and so are doing more or less nothing of any good on that front.

We won't even talk about things like alkaline water and so forth. That veers off into the land of magical thinking and the noisy "anti-aging" marketplace that so loves to take the money of the gullible.

Now that I've savaged items #1 and #2 in Dvorsky's post, I can say that the rest of it is good advice that you should read, especially on supporting the future of longevity research. Nothing other than major advances in medical science will reliably let you live to see 100 years of age - so best we all get working on that, right?


Well said!

I've fallen in the trap of caring too much about these details after reading Kurzweil's "Fantastic Voyage", but now I just take Omega 3, gelcaps of Vitamin D and a multivitamin.

Money I would have spent on the rest is more usefully used by the Methuselah Foundation (or even the SIAI).

Posted by: Michael G.R. at April 3rd, 2008 2:57 PM

Agreed! I think the clarity of a single, simple message is diluted by the hordes of advertisers and supplement promotion in the on-line longevity dialog. In marketing terms, it's similar to that famous research study involving a rack of different flavored jelly. People were more likely to buy when there were fewer choices.

A curious visitor can be quickly overwhelmed by the amount of conflicting data on various supplements. We need to "keep it simple" to spread the most important messages.

Posted by: S at April 4th, 2008 5:39 AM
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