The Relentless Focus on Supplements is Not Helpful

Dietary supplements elbow their way into discussions of human longevity in a very unhelpful way. The loudest voice in the room when it comes to aging is not the research community, but rather the collective megaphone wielded by the salespeople of the "anti-aging" marketplace - a well-funded army ever ready to puff up thin evidence, misrepresent research, propagate outright lies, and sell you whatever happens to be sitting in their warehouses right this instant. They're just as good at deceiving themselves as anyone else; the best salespeople are the true believers.

The simple truth is that no (presently available) supplement or collection of supplements can be shown to achieve anything close to the benefits to health and longevity produced by exercise and calorie restriction. Everyone should take a decent multivitamin, as it costs next to nothing and there is much evidence, both historical and contemporary, in support of the negative effects brought on by a diet lacking one or more essential micronutrients. The more adventurous can do as they please in the vast wilderness of studies showing very narrow statistical benefits in mice or specific populations - but only spend the money you can afford to throw away, and bear in mind you'd be better off donating it to efforts like the SENS Foundation that aim to actually repair and reverse aging rather than just slow it down. You'll never know whether or not all your investigations and supplements did any good: based on a broad reading of the work out there to date, any plausible effects from supplementation will be washed out by the consequences of your specific level of calorie intake and exercise.

This focus on supplements is, I think, some kind of oral fixation aspect of magical thinking. It's a mythic inheritance from the days of consuming a beast's heart to gain its courage. Researchers learn something about our biochemistry, spread the word, and that then manifests in our broader culture as an urge to consume some aspect of that knowledge - and so the pill sellers and potion manufacturers prosper in every age, regardless of the actual merits of what they sell.

I have to say that I am disappointed that Ray Kurzweil places so much emphasis on supplements in his thoughts on engineered longevity. He should throw that all out and focus on exercise and calorie restriction - that's where the science is far more settled, and the effects on health are large, noteworthy, and inarguable. But of course that isn't going to happen now that he has a business in the Life Extension Foundation vein going on that side, selling thin evidence to people who would rather follow the mythic path of eating knowledge than actually get up and exercise, or sanely reduce their intake of calories.


Ray Kurzweil places emphasis on both, supplements and exercise (and calorie intake also).
If you, for example, take the supplement increasing nitric oxide, and this helps you avoid heart failure for several years more than normal, this is good decision I think.

Posted by: ssss at May 5th, 2011 12:06 AM

Q10, carnitine, fish oil, vitamin d, milk thistle, arginine, etc - lots of useful supplements which can slow down for many years different health problems. Do not disregard them! While you are in your 20th-30th you might not need them, but after 40th - it is a good decision to start.

Posted by: Nick at May 6th, 2011 10:58 AM

@Nick: Except that the evidence for those claims is extremely shaky in comparison for the evidence for calorie restriction and exercise, and the purported effects are small compared to the benefits of calorie restriction and exercise.

Posted by: Reason at May 6th, 2011 11:03 AM

While I will agree that majority of nutritional supplements have little effect on lifespan, I know of at least two calorie restriction mimetics that have been proven to increase lifespan in normally fed mammals. While calorie restriction is perhaps the only proven method to increase lifespan in primates, I think that some of the calorie restriction mimetics may also allow for a longer and healthier lifespan, and an overall better quality of life-- because real calorie restriction is very difficult. Until something better comes along, calorie restriction mimetics are perhaps the best alternative. I don't think anyone has said that they are fountains of youth-- more like trickle of youths..... but at least it allows us to move in the right direction until something better comes along.

Posted by: Alan Cash at May 8th, 2011 9:03 PM

I am from India. Doctors known to me are divided on their views on supplements:some say vitamins should only be obtained through diet - no supplements; others say supplements are must.Usually the younger ones believe in the supplements.
I have relatives, who, blissfully unaware of calorie restriction or supplements, normally gorge on plentiful of rice yet maintain good health though nearing 90. To me it appears to be confusing.

Posted by: Nalinaksha Mutsuddi at May 10th, 2011 8:02 AM

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