Clean living will only get you so farGenes, money and luck also play major roles in longevity

By Mario Garrett, from

Nutrition gurus often assume that living healthy extends life span. Eat well and you can live forever, or at least up to 120 years. It seems that wherever you turn there is a new fad for eating “right” and a new savior to tell us how to do it. But what are the actual nutritional needs of older adults?

In California, as with the rest of the country, we see two polarizing realities. We have an obesity epidemic on one hand, with half of older Californians, predominantly men, being overweight or obese.

On the other side of the coin, more than 20 percent of the older adult population experiences food insecurity, and about 4 percent experience hunger in a given year. With recent reductions in federal funding for welfare programs, and local news reports of increasing demand by food programs, this unmet need for food assistance is probably underestimated.

In the middle of these two realities are older adults trying to eat healthy while being bombarded with ever-changing advice on what to eat in order to reduce disease and increase their life span. But science shows that apart from reducing the risk of ill health, good nutrition is, like air, necessary but not proportional in its positive effect on aging.

Gurus who claimed to hold the nutritional secret share one common characteristic – they are all dead. Some notables include Adelle Davis (1904-74) who often said she never saw anyone get cancer who drank a quart of milk a day, as she did. She died of bone cancer at age 70. Nathan Pritikin (1915-85), after being diagnosed with heart disease, advocated regular exercise and a low-fat, high-fiber diet. He committed suicide at age 69 while suffering from leukemia. Robert Atkins (1930-2003), the proponent of a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, died of a brain injury. Roy Walford (1924-2004), a proponent of caloric restriction as a means to extending life, died of Lou Gehrig’s disease at 79. Jim Fixx (1932-84), who championed the health benefits of running and claimed that regular running offered virtual immunity to heart disease, died of a heart attack while jogging at 52. Alan Mintz (1938-2007), a controversial proponent of using human growth hormone – an anabolic steroid – died at 69 from complications of a brain biopsy. Brain cancer seems to be a particular risk of anabolic steroid use.

The real secret truth is that scientists know very little about aging. Caloric restriction is the only known intervention shown to prolong life in multiple species, but is not yet proven with humans.

The oldest person that has ever lived, Jeanne Louise Calment, might have some secrets herself. When she died in 1977, Calment was 122 years and 164 days. She started smoking when she was 21 and did not stop until the age of 117. She ate nearly two pounds of chocolate every week, and drank port wine. She ascribed her longevity to olive oil, which she said she poured on all her food and rubbed onto her skin. Despite the luxury of her daily habits, it is likely that marrying into money probably had a significant influence on her longevity. Circumstances made it possible for her to never have to work and to live a leisured lifestyle, pursuing hobbies such as tennis, cycling, swimming, roller skating, piano and opera. Rich, educated people live longer. So, in the end longevity comes down to genetics, money and luck.

You cannot go wrong by trying to live a healthy life, but it does not mean that you will cheat death.

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