A Milken Institute Global Conference session offered attendees a toolbox of ideas to help improve our health and wellbeing – and our chances of celebrating our 100th birthdays. Moderated by Howard Soule of the Milken Institute and Prostate Cancer Foundation, the panel presented diverse points of view on the secrets of longevity, but all agreed that personalized nutrition and exercise plans are key components of a healthful life.
According to Gary Small, director of UCLA’s Longevity Center, there are things we can do to lower our risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, one of the most feared conditions associated with aging. He said that for Alzheimer’s disease, “genetics is not the whole story,” accounting for only one third of the risk. The panel agreed that cardiovascular conditioning, stress management, proper nutrition, and weight control are emerging as critical factors in reducing risk for Alzheimer’s.
Scientists are learning more about the benefits of regular exercise. June Chan, a professor of epidemiology from the University of California San Francisco, described her own work in which she observed that vigorous exercise is associated with longer prostate cancer survival. In addition, studies have shown that regular physical exercise is linked to reduction in plaque associated with Alzheimer’s in patients who are at high risk for developing the disease.
Luigi Fontana, director of the division of nutrition and aging at the Italian National Institute of Health, argued that while exercise may offer some protection against disease, it does not slow the aging process. Instead, he thinks caloric restriction may have that effect. He noted that in some animal studies, caloric restriction without malnutrition extends life span by up to 50 percent. However, caloric restriction did not always result in extended life, which indicates that “possibly each of us may have a peculiar threshold for caloric restriction.”
Although other panelists stopped short of endorsing extreme caloric restriction as a universal remedy, they did agree that obesity is a serious impediment to health and long life. “Man is well adapted to starvation but poorly adapted to over-nutrition,” said David Heber, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. He described how humans have evolved successful strategies for coping with a low-nutrient environment; when calories are plentiful, these fat-storage mechanisms can cause problems. Heber stressed the importance of getting rid of intra-abdominal fat, specifically, and maintaining a proper balance of fat and lean tissue.
Heber asserted that recommended protein intake levels should be significantly higher than those included in current USDA guidelines. “People on low protein diets lose muscle mass over time,” he said. Not all panelists agreed. Fontana countered that high protein intake is associated with high rates of cancer and accelerated aging. “We don’t have all the answers,” Small said.
Fish oil brought the panelists back into accord. All agreed that fish oil or algae oil, both rich in omega-3 fatty acids, are a beneficial supplement to a healthy diet. Some panelists cautioned against reliance on other dietary supplements as they are not regulated by the FDA or properly evaluated clinically. “Natural is not necessarily safe,” said Small.
Panelists also agreed that stress reduction is critical. Social interaction, meditation, cultivating a positive outlook, regular attendance at a house of worship, appropriate sleep periods, and laughter – according to the panelists, these are all associated with longer life.