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New Longevity Enhancer Found October 1, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Longevity, Nutrition.
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It seems like a new longevity enhancement is popping up every week these days so here’s another one to add to the list.  Researchers at the Institute of Healthy Ageing at University College London have managed to extend the life of by up to 20% while reducing the number of age related diseases they experienced.  The method they used to achieve this is gene therapy, specifically altering the mice to block production of the S6 Kinase protein, which plays a role in protein synthesis, cell proliferation and how the body responds to food intake.  This therapy produces an effect similar to caloric restriction.

Now if you’ll allow me to digress slightly, those of you who have been paying attention may have noticed a pattern in regards to all the new longevity enhancers currently being tested.  Rapamycin inhibits the mTOR protein, which regulates cell growth, cell proliferation, transcription and protein synthesis and is stimulated by insulin (among other things.)  Metformin, a drug that may have some life extension capabilities, is more commonly used to treat type-II diabetes, which as you surely know is caused by the body having a resistance and often over-abundance of insulin. Caloric restriction probably has numerous factors which give it it’s effects but one notable thing it does is lower insulin levels in the body (less calories mean less blood sugar, which means less insulin.)  Now we have S6 Kinase which as I said above plays a part in how the body responds to food.  What does the body release to take sugar out of the bloodstream after you eat a meal?  You guessed it, insulin.

Now it would be irresponsible and stupid of me to suggest that insulin holds the key to eternal life.  Ageing is a complex process that involves many different factors.  That being said it does seem like most of the promising longevity treatments involve reducing insulin activity.  Perhaps we have a better understanding of insulin’s role in ageing than we do other factors.  Perhaps insulin is simply easier to study and work with.  Perhaps I’m completely wrong and talking out of my ass.  It’s possible, but I doubt it.  It’s well established that an excess of insulin in the body can lead to disastrous effects (see diabetes) and better thinker than I have seen a link between insulin and poor health (Ray Kurzweil in Fantastic Voyage.)  Fact of the matter is, I would put money on the next big longevity enhancers following the same tract as the others: reducing insulin activity.


Centenarians and the American Health Care Debate September 12, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Fitness, Longevity.
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It’s official.  If you want to live 100 years you have to move to Okinawa.  Okay I made that up but it is true that Okinawa has the highest percentage of centenarians in the world at about 52 in 100,000.  That’s one of the many things you will learn by reading the article linked below which is in fact a pretty interesting article.

You can read the article yourself for the full story but what I want to talk about is something different.  I want to talk about how centenarians tie into the current health care debate going on in America.  Amongst all the fear mongering of a government take over of the health system and communist infiltrators destroying the country there is a legitimate debate going on over how to reduce costs, which considering the escalating costs of health care is something that needs to take place.   Both the Democrats, led by Obama, and the Republicans have plans out for how they would reform the heath care system.  Obama’s plan to reduce costs involves the creation of a public insurance plan for private companies to compete with, cutting waste in the Medicare system and emphasizing preventive care to catch diseases before they advance.  The Republican plan seems to chiefly revolve around tort reform.

The problem is that, according to experts, neither plan seems like it would decrease health care costs all that much.  According to the Congressional Budget Office medical malpractice costs make up less than 2 percent of all health care spending so any reform in tort law is unlikely to produce the kind of savings everyone is looking for.   As for Obama: driving down costs with competition sounds great but there is no guarantee, the same goes for cutting waste in Medicare and while preventive care will certainly save lives studies show that it fails to save money, since many of the tests that would be used to catch diseases early would be given to people who would never have developed the disease.

The thing is, neither plan address were most of the spending in medicine takes place: the elderly.  Estimates for the amount spent on health care for those over 65 go as high as 60% of total costs and it’s no secret why.  The elderly are much more likely to suffer from a number of crippling degenerative diseases (Alzheimers, osteoporosis, diabetes) which rather than kill them quickly, which is horrible and cheap, kill them slowly, which is horrible and expensive.  The cost of keeping the elderly alive is where most health care costs come from and this is what makes centenarians so interesting.

According to this article and other research, centenarians avoid many of the degenerative disease that afflict those who die slightly younger and are able, in many cases, to live independently till the day they die.  The reason for this is simply that those who make it to the extremes of old age are the strongest and fittest, able to resist the damaging effects of aging better than there counterparts.  While lifestyle certainly plays a part in this (the article mentions diet, exercise, “psycho-spiritual” and social as contributing factors) centenarians also seem to possess a genetic advantage over the rest of us, as evidence by the fact that the various centenarian hot spots around the globe tend to be isolated island communities with a large amount of inbreeding.  Centenarians may indeed hold the secret to longevity and health in there DNA and that is where the focus of health care should be.

You want to cut costs in health care Mr. President, start funding anti-aging research.   Find every centenarian you can and turn their genetic code inside out, look at every substance that shows the slightest promise of halting aging, because if we can slow aging even the smallest bit the implications could be enormous.  Leaving aside the benefits people would experience by living longer and healthier lives (which I assume I don’t need to go into,) the savings in costs would be tremendous.  Every degenerative disease, which as I said are the ones that cost us the most money to treat, is either caused or is made worse by one thing: aging.  Cure that and you go a long way towards curing them all.

I will finish this by responding to a counter argument I’m sure some of you are making.  “Sure, all this sounds good but it won’t do anything to reduce costs now.”  You are right.  This will not in any way help to reduce costs in the immediate future and as such needs to be only one part, though a large part, of any plan to fix our health care system.  But if we think what we have now is bad, we haven’t seen anything yet.  The baby boomers are on the brink of retirement and with today’s medical technology stand to live even longer than the generation before them.  If we start this research now, we may just be ready for them when the time comes.


(As a side note, though you may not be able to tell from the article I support a single payer universal health care system.)

A Healthy Lifestyle Reduces Risk Of Heart Disease July 21, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Longevity, Nutrition.
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Shocking.  Absolutely shocking.   According to a study published in JAMA you can actually reduce you risk of heart disease simply by exercising regularly, not smoking, eating a diet high in fruits and whole grains and drinking alcohol in moderation.  This is mind-blowing, the idea that you can increase your health and longevity without resorting to expensive drugs or fancy gimmicks.  Now that we have this information I have no doubt that we will see rates of heart disease plummet once people start taking up this advice.  (To those unable to detect the sarcasm in the previous paragraph, I pity you.)

Okay so maybe that was a little over the top but seriously, how does this qualify as news?  We know that a healthy lifestyle can increase lifespan and decrease risk of heart disease, along with a lot of other stuff.  We’ve known that for quite awhile now.  We’ve been telling people for quite awhile now.  The problem is that while people have certainly been listening it hasn’t changed a damn thing.  As a personal trainer I am amazed at how many times I have been talking to a client about fitness and find that they already know all the information I’m giving them.  They know what they need to do to be healthy and know all of the benefits that it brings yet they still don’t do it.  This conundrum has been frustrating public health officials for decades and to be honest I don’t see it ending soon (though I do see it ending, which I’ll address at the bottom.)

To be blunt, people don’t change their habits because they are short sighted.  Considering that for most of our history as a species individuals died before reaching 30 it’s very hard for us to think 50 years into the future and make plans accordingly.   Most cultures that are healthy like Okinawa or the Basque are not so because they choose to be, they are because of there culture and circumstances.   They eat healthy diets high in vegetables and fruits because that’s what they traditionally eat.  They get more exercise because the design of their cities or the way in which they live favors walking over driving.   Many of these cultures place a large emphasis on strong social and familial bonds, a factor linked to longer longevity.  The point is that they do not choose to healthy, their culture is just more conducive to a healthy lifestyle.  Change their culture and diet to something closer to the standard Western one and you’ll see those longevity number drop (something we are seeing in younger members of traditionally long lived communities.)

There is basically only a few ways to make populations healthy on a large scale (note that I am using the term healthy here to refer to longevity and lack of degenerative diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, etc.)  You can change the culture, change humans or make being healthy so easy that it no longer becomes an issue.  The last option is what most people want and seem to be waiting for, the metaphorical silver bullet.  Exercise in a pill.  The good news is that scientists are hard at work developing just that and within most of our lifetimes we should witness it.  This is what I meant when i said I do see it ending.  Technology will make it so easy to be healthy that people will do what they need to without thinking about.  The bad news is that those technologies are still a ways off and unless we start taking care of the bodies we have now, some of us won’t live to see that day.


Americans Still Getting Fatter July 1, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Fitness.
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This is bad news.   Obesity rates went up in 23 states last year.  Many of those are baby boomers that are starting to hit retirement age.   That health care overhaul better come fast.


Mediterranean Diet Improves Longevity, But Some Foods More Important Than Others June 23, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Longevity, Nutrition.
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It seems the much touted Mediterranean Diet is a bit more nuanced than we may have thought.  A recent study found that certain foods commonly found in the diet are more important than others.  Specifically eating more vegetables, fruits, nuts, pulses and olive oil, and drinking moderate amounts of alcohol was linked to greater longevity while eating more fish, seafood and cereal was not.  Read the whole article in the link below.


New “Tomato Pill” Reduces Risk of Heart Disease June 6, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Nutrition.
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I’m glad I eat tomatos.   Ateronon is a new supplement that’s being marketed as a way to stave off heart disease and stroke.  The pill contains a phytochemical called lycopene, which is commonly found in tomato skins where it is responsible for the red color.  What lycopene seems to do is reduce the oxidation of harmful fats in the blood.  While for most of us a diet high in fruits and vegetables is probably enough this sounds like a promising supplement for those with a high risk of heart disease.


Fantastic Voyage, Nutritional Advice for Immortality June 3, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Longevity, Nutrition.
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There are a plethora of diets on the market today, so it’s somewhat surprising that even with all the low-carb, low-fat, high-carb, high-fiber, Mediterranean, Caveman, celery and what have you diets there is only one diet that promises you immortality if you follow it. Well I suppose that’s not necessarily true. Even though the title of Ray Kurzweil’s and Terry Grossman’s book is Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever the doesn’t actually claim that the diet itself will accomplish that. The premise of the book is that we are on the cusp of developing radical new technologies that will allow us to drastically increase human life span (see Aubrey de Grey) and if you want to live long enough to take advantage of those technologies then you’d better start following the plan outlined in the book. Since I don’t consider myself a book critic this is going to be less a review and more a summary of the information contained within the book as well as my personal opinion on the veracity of some of it’s claims. So, let’s begin.

The first few chapters of the book are essentially introductions. The first one lays the groundwork for the rest of the book by explaining the basic premise which I outlined above. The second chapter outlines the Bridge idea that play’s a major part in the book structure. Basically, Ray and Terry both consider the information in the book to belong to Bridge One, current technologies that can be used to improve health and increase lifespan. These current technologies consist primarily of nutrition and exercise advice, some of which is pretty standard mainstream science and some which, as I’ll show later, is decidedly not. Bridge Two is biotechnology, which at some point in the near future will enable humans to control our biology and genetics and thus improve our health and longevity even further. This will lead to Bridge Three, nanotechnology-AI, at which point we will not be reliant on our biology and will be able to replace many or all of our, according to the book, sub-par biological features. Throughout the book there are side boxes containing information on Bridge Two and Three technologies usually in relation to what ever current technologies the book is talking about. While they are mostly theoretical they are still fun to read and think about and considering the authors ultimate aim is immortality they don’t feel out of place.

Ray and Terry both take a chapter to tell us there personal stories and how they became interested in health and longevity. Ray tells his now pretty famous story of his father passing away at a relatively early age of heart disease, his own diagnosis with diabetes and his subsequent rejection of conventional medicine in favor of at the time radical treatments that ultimately stopped and reversed his diabetes. Terry’s story is also one of growing dissatisfied with conventional medicine though obviously from the view point of a doctor rather than a patient. Both men met at a meeting of the Foresight Institute and struck up a friendship and correspondence, on result of which was ultimately this book. These chapters are nice little asides that give the reader a view it the authors motivations and backgrounds.

Now we come to the important part, what does the book actually say and is any of it true. Considering this book was written by a licensed physician and a genius inventor you probably won’t be surprised to learn that much of it is sound science. The book recommends a relatively high protein, low carb, low fat diet but presents a much more nuanced view than most low-something diets. For carbohydrates the book stresses avoiding foods with a high Glycemic Index (or more specifically a Glycemic Load.) The Glycemic Index is a measurement of how quickly carbs are converted into sugar and make there way into the blood stream. Carbs that break down quickly (candy, potatoes, refined grains) lead to a spike in blood sugar which then leads to a spike in insulin. Over time, heavy spikes in insulin can lead to Type 2 Diabetes. In addition diet recommends eating foods high in fiber as there is some evidence that high fiber diets can lower the risk of certain types of cancer. The book does recommend a much lower carbohydrate level then most diets (between 1/6 and 1/3 of your daily intake, which is still higher than the Atkins diet) but this can partially be explained by its emphasis on low calorie, high fiber carbs like vegetables, beans and whole grains. For fats the book emphasizes unsaturated over saturated fats, which is also good advice. While saturated fats have been linked to atherosclerosis, unsaturated fats have been shown to actually improve lipid profiles and thus aid in heart health. Finally the book also recommends slight calorie restriction, both to aid in weight loss and for the purported longevity benefits. While calorie restriction has not yet been shown to improve lifespan in humans it has been demonstrated in every animal species it’s been tried on so it’s a safe assumption that it works for people too. Overall, the books diet advice is pretty mainstream and spot on. Where it starts diverging from mainstream opinion is in it’s supplement recommendation.

Let’s get one thing straight, I take and recommend supplements. While it’s true that nutritional aids can never replace a healthy diet they can do what the name implies, i.e. supplement your diet to ensure no vitamin or mineral deficiencies. Kurzweil though is not satisfied with simply preventing deficiencies. His program calls for a massive supplement load with the goal of curing and correcting diseases and conditions in the body. Note that when I say massive, I mean massive. Kurzweil’s supplement recommendations are often 4-5 times the RDA currently prescribed and in some cases much more. Kurzweil himself takes upwards of 150 pills a day to reach the levels he prescribes. To be blunt, that’s a shit load of pills and there is a lot of disagreement over whether such aggressive supplementation is helpful, or even good. It’s a well known fact that excess levels of some vitamins, such as A, K and B12, can lead to severe side effects and most nutrition scientists seem to agree that supplements can be useful for special populations there remains a lot of debate over whether even simple multivitamins can be helpful to healthy population. To be fair Kurzweil address’ some of these points, none of his recommendations are above the UL (tolerable upper limit) and a some of his supplement recommendations are specifically for special populations. On the whole, I tend to lean more towards Kurzweil’s view of supplements than the medical establishment, but be warned that there is no consensus on there benefits.

There is a lot more information in this book that I could go into but since I doubt you want to here me talk about homocysteine levels and methylation for another three paragraphs I’ll wrap things up. Does this book offer good advice? Overall, yes it does. The dietary advice is based on sound nutritional science so you could sure do a lot worse than following the dietary regimen this book outlines. The exercise advice, which basically boils down to the standard recommendation of 30 minutes of cardio a day for 5 days per week and resistance training 2-3 days per week, is also sound. The supplement recommendations are a little more iffy, some of the claims are backed up with evidence while others are still up in the air, so think really hard before you shell out hundreds of dollars and start popping 150 pills a day.

The Bodybug…or My First Cyborg Implant April 24, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Fitness, Human Enhancement.
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Working as I do at 24 Hour Fitness I have had the opportunity to see first body-bug_250hand the uses of a fascinating little device called the Bodybug.  About the size of an Ipod, the Bodybug is a device which tracks calorie expenditure.  For those of you that don’t know thats actually quite impressive as the most common way of tracking caloric expenditure is through the use a VO2 mask, a very big and very cumbersome device that is not at all comfortable to wear (trust me on this.) 

Why might a way to track caloric expediture be important?  Thank you for asking.  For those attempting to lose weight the benefit is obvious.  Since weight loss is all a calorie game (burn more than you take in and you lose weight) knowing how much you burn take all the guess work out of half the equation and since the bodybug also comes with a subsciption to an online food diary, a service you can also do on your own, once you have one you really have no excuse for not losing weight.  Once you reach your ideal weight the bodybug is also useful for helping you maintain weight.  If you find yourself putting pounds back on you can take a look at calories in vs. calories out and know exactly what your doing wrong.

Yoga vs. Kung Fu March 18, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Fitness.
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Okay, there are two reasons why I’m posting this viedo.  Firstly because it’s arguably the craziest demonstration of flexibility I’ve ever seen.  Don’t take my word for it, just watch the video.


On a more serious note, I want to say a few things regarding the yoga master’s flexibility.  While extremely impressive as a general rule hyperflexiblity of the joints, such as displayed in the video, is not usually something to be desired.  That kind of flexibility requires very loose musculature around the joints as tight muscles would not allow such range of motion.  Unfortunately, tight muscles can actually be a good thing as they contribute to jiont stability.

Think of it this way.  Every time you take a step an enormous amount of force is placed on the joints of the legs (when walking the force is equal to your body weight, when running it can be 3x your body weight.)   To counteract that force, your muscles contract to ensure joint integrity.  Tight muscles provide more stability, loose muscles provide less.  As such hyperflexibility places joints in a precarious position, increasing the risk of injury. 

Now normally I would say that the hyperflexiblity in the yoga master’s joints gives him an increased risk of injury, but I also know enough about yoga (seeing as how I teach it) to know that in addition to improving flexibility it is a wonderful strength building practice, as can be seen in the video itself.  As such I will simply end with this little bit of advice: any increase in one aspect of the body’s abilities will lead to a decrease in another, so unless you’re training for a specific event, don’t be a specialist (i.e. great flexibility, little strength), strive to be, well, an all around athlete.  After all, adaptability is what got us as a species where we are.

Study Finds EPO Has Cognitive Benefits September 11, 2008

Posted by Matt Brown in Endurance, Human Enhancement.
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Josh over at Human Enhancement and Biopolitics has recently commented on a rather interesting development concerning EPO.  EPO, or erythropoietin, is a hormone in the body that regulates red blood cell production.  While naturally occuring in the body, it is also a favorite drug of endurance athletes the world over for its ability to increase the body’s production of red blood cells and thus increase submaximal endurance.  However, new studies have shown that EPO also has beneficial neurological effects.  Doctors had noticed that patients given EPO to treat kidney failure also gained an increase in cognitive abilities.  To quantify these affects researchers than conducted a study whereby rats were given injections of EPO every other day for three weeks.  At the end of the trial mice given the drug had better memory in some situations than those fed a placebo, with the cognitive benefits lasting up to four weeks after the last injection.

While all the above is interesting, the best part is why EPO triggered these effects.  When I first read this I assumed that that increases in memory could be attributed to the increased red blood cell count.  Keep in mind that more RBC’s means more oxygen making it’s way to the brain allowing the brain to produce more energy and thus do more work.  Instead, it seems that EPO is actually directly affecting the hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with memory and learning, by increasing the plasticity of the neurons found there.  In essence, it is making the neurons more efficient at transmitting nerve impulses.

All of this has some very exciting implications.  EPO’s well documented physical effects already make it a wonder drug for athletes, these new fidings could make it popular with the population at large.  Just as steroids are popular with average people trying to mold a more physically attrative body so EPO could soon become popular with those trying to get a advantage at work or in business, and unlike steroids the dangers of EPO (too many RBC’s can be dangerous) can be rather easily kept in check with regular blood tests to ensure a healthy level of RBC’s.  It is possible that as more people accept the benefits of EPO, acceptance of other enhancement technologies will also rise, helping to bring the beneftis of these technologies to more and more people.