Longevity: beyond diet

There is a lot of research on longevity going on now, much of it with Kurzweil’s theory of singularity in view: he believes we’re on the cusp of having the technological advances for indefinite life extension, and that it’s now possible to slow and reverse physical aging long enough to survive until that time.  Some researchers have found that extreme caloric restriction radically extends the lifespan of mice; others have recently discovered that drugs that maintain a state of ketosis seem to have similar effect (in both cases, the body feeds off its own resources more efficiently). This comes at a time when the life expectancy for some groups and areas in the US is actually on the decline.

But, there is also research going on considers the social and cultural aspects of longevity, looking at pockets of long-lived people in various parts of the world. An article in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine focused on the Greek island of Ikaria, “The Island Where People Forget to Die“.  Not only are Ikarians two and a half times more likely to reach 90 than Americans, but they do so with dramatically lower rates of depression and dementia.

(c) Andrea Frazzetta/LUZphoto for The New York Times

While the researchers don’t overlook a diet low in processed foods and meat, high in local vegetables, legumes, olive oil, fresh herbs, and red wine, the article also considers lifestyle elements.  Older people have active social lives in public, often playing competitive games. They work in their gardens and live in their own homes, and they rest all they need.

When research like this gets wide attention, it seems to me that the result is usually a trendy diet that mimics an aspect of the subject area’s nutrition, along with a plethora of new, highly marketed supplement pills.  Taking extra antioxidants and eating more veggies probably won’t hurt anyone, but you can’t put domino games with friends and ten hours of sleep into a pill.

About twenty years ago, I lived not far from another pocket of longevity mentioned in the article, the Nuoro region of Sardinia.  We Americans rushed around as usual, but the local pace was vastly different. It could take two years to have a new home phone line installed, a situation that was met with a shrug. Local stores carried very few groceries: you bought from the twice weekly outdoor market, you grew it yourself, you set aside hours to have a restaurant dinner, or you picked up a rotisserie chicken — the only “fast food” in town. Every evening before dinner was the passagiata, a time when locals would hang out in the town square, sauntering in circles and chatting with friends, saying hello to acquaintances, and catching up on the gossip. All ages were there, from babies to great great grandmothers, and I always wondered what the heck they talked about when their lives seemed so simple.  Nothing was ever done in a rush and most things were scheduled to be done domani, which didn’t have the literal translation of “tomorrow”, but actually meant “whenever we happen to get around to it.”

Days spent like the Sardinians or island Greeks are what I relish when I take vacations nowadays, but that pace made for brutal culture shock. It’s also incongruous with modern economics, from the experience of the ongoing EU financial crises.  Still, I’d be happier if the takeaway from research like this was a reasonable critique of our rushed, striving lifestyles and the increased social isolation of the elderly rather than just another trendy supplement.