Recently, I was invited to speak at a conference in Rome. I'd never been to Italy, and the conference sounded a bit different from what I was used to. So, I went.
The theme of the conference was aging; it was a strange sort of symposium, in that many of the speakers perceived aging as a disease in its own right. The largest contingent was from Silicon Valley, and they had much to say about the potential roles of cryogenics, nanotechnology, and bioengineering in "curing" this disease known as aging.
The evangelists for the Silicon Valley contingent included people such as Spanish futurist Jose Cordeiro, author of La Muerte de la Muerte (translation: The Death Of Death) (1), as well as English biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, author of Ending Aging (2). By employing an engineering approach to aging, and hence age-related disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, both of them predicted that death will be "optional" in the next 20-30 years.
Aubrey de Grey.
(1) Mitochondria dysfunction - A process whereby the energy-generating "batteries" within most of our cells acquire damage with age. De Grey suggests that mitochondrial DNA can be transferred into the cell nucleus, thus protecting it from degradation.
(2) Cell loss and atrophy - Whereby cells gradually die and are not replaced with new cells. De Grey believes that we can use a number of technologies, such as stem cell therapy, regenerative medicine, and tissue engineering, to replace these cells.
(3) Build-up of "junky" proteins - Whereby proteins that make up molecules and enzymes within our cells become "worn out" and accumulate with age. De Grey thinks we can add new enzymes to the cells to remove these junky proteins.
I read De Grey's book several years ago, and I thought the same thing then as I did during his talk - "Good luck with that." In my opinion, a multitude of reasons exist as to why these ideas will fail to end aging. Too many reasons to mention here; I'd need to write another article on it.
Will death be optional in 20-30 years? Hmm.
Thus, De Grey argues for an engineering approach to ending aging, whereas I suspect that a metabolic approach, the foundation of which is dietary and involves purposefully varying things such as the amount, composition, and timing of a person's food intake, may go a long way to preventing aging, and possibly age-related diseases.
Is there evidence for this in humans? Maybe.
The World's Blue Zones
In 2005, United States author Dan Buettner wrote a story in National Geographic about what he called the world's Blue Zones, regions where people live longer than anywhere else (3). In all five regions, people regularly live past the age of 90, and there tend to be more centenarians than elsewhere. There are five of these so-called Blue Zones.
First, Sardinia, Italy. A relatively poor region of Italy where people ingest a lot of vegetables, nuts, dairy (sheep and goat milk, and ricotta cheese), meat, and wine.
Second, Okinawa, Japan. Another relatively poor region where eat a high-carbohydrate diet consisting largely of a kind of sweet potato. The people of Okinawa also traditionally practiced Hara Hachi Bu, focusing on eating until they were "80% full," although this is practiced less widely now than it used to be.
In 2005, Dan Buettner identified five "Blue Zones" (3).
Fourth, Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. The residents of this region eat a high-fiber diet of tortillas, black beans, papayas, bananas, and yams. Plus, they drink a lot of coffee.
Fifth, Ikaria, Greece. Mostly Greek Orthodox Christians, the people of this region eat lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, potatoes, olive oil, and goat's milk. They also drink a lot of coffee and wine, and fast regularly.
Comparing Blue Zones
It is important to recognize that although the characteristics of the world's so-called Blue Zones mentioned above may be associated with longevity, it does not necessarily mean that they are actually causative in promoting longevity. Correlation does not infer causation. Still, it's interesting to postulate what the unifying factors might be.
Buettner tried to identify common factors amongst the five regions; he manged to do this for three of them (Sardinia, Okinawa, and Loma Linda), identifying that people from each focused on plant-based foods, constant moderate exercise, and family and social integration.
Buettner believed that focusing on plant-based foods, constant moderate exercise, and prioritizing family and social integration may hold the keys to longevity.