Recently I read in a New York Times magazine article that the 130th richest man in the United States wants to match his age with his Forbes magazine wealth ranking. His riches have not bought him a unique, scientifically-formulated elixir for immortality; nor is he a wacky proponent of perpetual hyperbaric oxygen chambers or cryogenics. What he does do is carry the lifestyle modification of a healthy diet, adequate exercise and an avoidance of toxic substances-- from the reasonable to the obsessive. He has funded, to the tune of $500 million, a brick-and-mortar research institute with M.D.’s and PhD's, dedicated to his conviction that if you eat the right plants in copious amounts the ravages of cardiovascular disease can be eliminated and life spans exceeding a century become universally attainable. This is not your father’s health care nut, but he is one of the most compulsive and deluded.
Let me emphasize a critical distinction-- losing weight, aerobic activity, avoiding nicotine and environmental toxins, a low fat diet and limiting salt and refined sugar ingestion are extremely important; but you cannot vege-matic, yoga, step aerobic and meditate yourself into everlasting life. Physical and mental health are determined not only by nurture, but also by nature. The DNA that we inherit in our genes is what our eccentric billionaire has chosen to ignore. This DNA provides the information as to which enzymes, proteins and receptors our body’s cells manufacture and thereby determine the metabolic pathways that influence our susceptibility to disease, toxins, aging and infection. Few diseases are entirely determined by a specific genetic code and, similarly, there is not a specific “longevity” gene.
The fallacy of our modern Ponce de Leon’s quest is what I term the paradox of genetic predisposition for cardiovascular disease. In prehistoric times, our hunter-gather ancestors had a survival advantage because of the fright/flight/fight response of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. In simple English, when confronted with danger, it was advantageous for the neural and hormonal output of these organs to cause our attention to become strictly focused, increase blood sugar and fats to allow energy for muscular exertion, conserve salt and water to maintain blood volume and increase adrenalin for strength of action. In a world of sudden death threats, this response improves your chance of living another day. Mankind today has maintained this genetic makeup, but now we live in a world of chronic stress, environmental toxins, sedentary lifestyle and atherogenic foods that turns this metabolic response against us. As opposed to longevity, the same neurohormonal output leads to high blood pressure, diabetes, Type A personality and high cholesterol. We were not genetically selected to live in 2015 as we know it, and no lifestyle alteration can change our DNA.
Let us imagine that we do find the fountain of youth and there is water for all to drink, this may not necessarily be a good thing. Practically, how will we feed, house, educate and medicate this exploding population of very old people? How do we redefine the traditional passages of life? At what age do we retire? When can we vote? What incentive is there in the workplace for productivity and innovation if it will be another 40 years before your boss dies and you get promoted? How do you remember the names and birthdays of all your great-great-great-great grandchildren (and afford birthday presents)? Quite seriously, aging is what makes us human and mortality is the one common bond shared by all mankind. Breaking that bond may provoke the highest peril.
By Norman Silverman, MD, with Ryan McKennon, DO and Ren Carlton