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Los Angeles, California, United States
I am a British-born, naturalized American, living in California. Based in Los Angeles, I work as a correspondent for BBC television, radio and websites. This blog is mostly dedicated to my interest in the science of human longevity - food, fasting, exercise and long-term health. All views expressed reflect my personal experiences. I advise anyone considering adopting a new diet or fitness regime first to consult with their doctor. Links on this site are to my personal portfolio of audio, video and text. Copyright of broadcast works remain with the BBC. Thanks for the visit!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Loma Linda: The secret to a long healthy life?

In a world where the cost of the obesity crisis is widely acknowledged to be as damaging as smoking and armed conflict, it is refreshing to discover a community that bucks the trend.

It is all the more surprising that the California town of Loma Linda, which oozes good health amongst its inhabitants, is found amidst an urban landscape of fast food restaurants and convenience stores.
Betty with weights101-year-old Betty Streifling (centre) is one of Loma Linda's long-living residents
But this is a place that has an enviable record of its residents living to a ripe old age, often without the burdens of chronic illness until very late in life.
Studies have shown that people here live up to 10 years longer than most Americans and enjoy better health in their golden years.
The reason for this extraordinary longevity could be rooted in their faith. Seventh-day Adventists make up about half of the approximately 24,000 people who live here. It is an evangelical Christian community that follows strict guidelines about food, exercise and rest. 
"The data is clear, the data has been published, the data has been peer reviewed," says Dr Wayne Dysinger, chair of the preventative medicine department at Loma Linda University School of Medicine.
"There's really not a lot of argument that people [living] this lifestyle, live longer."
Full story at the BBC website | BBC World Service radio documentary - listen here

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Ecuadorians that could hold vital clues to healthy aging

I have just returned from a fascinating day at the USC Davis School of Gerentology, which is currently playing host to a group of people from Ecuador with Laron syndrome.

The condition, a form of dwarfism, is characterized by stunted growth, but also an extraordinary resistance to cancer and diabetes.

These individuals are known to have mutations in the gene for the growth hormone receptor, resulting in exceptionally low levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF) 1, which has been linked to aging.

Ongoing studies are exploring parallels with studies in mice - and humans in the wider population - and the aging process.

What a great group of people. Good humored and generous with their time.  They would rather not live with stunted growth, but they know that their body chemistry is special. So special that it could hold vital clues to the aging process for the rest of us.

Photo: Ecuadorian endocrinologist Jaime Guevara-Aguirre and USC cell biologist Valter Longo with the Laron subjects

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Possible link between depression and age-related diseases

Some of the longest lived people often equate their longevity to their level of happiness. Being sad, depressed or stressed is rarely linked to vibrant health or wellbeing.  But are chronically stressed individuals quantifiably, at greater risk of getting the diseases of old age? It seems they may be. 

Researchers in Germany believe that they are beginning to unravel a connection between biochemical changes in the body and both the diseases of old age and depression.    

*According to lead researcher, Dr Anthony Zannas (Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry, Munich):

"We found that both aging and depression seem to lead to changes in how DNA is processed, and that this can control the expression of genes that regulate how we respond to stress. These changes are associated with increased inflammation, and we believe that this may lead to the increased risk for several aging-related diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases and neuropsychiatric disorders, that has been observed in chronically stressed and depressed individuals. 

Commenting on the work for the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology congress in Berlin., Professor Bill Deakin (Manchester) said:

"There is a growing realisation that depression is one expression of a set of vulnerabilities for a range of disorders associated with age including obesity, diabetes, cerebro-vascular disease and dementia." 

The findings, which need to be confirmed in future studies, may explain why aging-related diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases and neuropsychiatric disorders, are worse in chronically stressed and depressed people.  

The hope is that a between understanding of the links between depression and age related conditions will lead to better treatments for the diseases of old age.

*Source: EurekAlert 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Why put a limit on life?

In a recent essay, Why I Hope to Die at 75, in The Atlantic, the prominent and respected health strategist Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel spelled out his wish to die at the age of 75. 

"I think this manic desperation to endlessly extend life is misguided and potentially destructive. For many reasons, 75 is a pretty good age to aim to stop," wrote Emanuel, who helped develop President Obama's health care reform law and is the director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health.  

I struggle to understand why anyone would want to exit this world at such a relatively young age.  Modern science, coupled with a better understanding of the biological mechanisms that promote a long healthy life make it eminently possible to live far longer than the accepted norm. And even by conservative standards, 75 is below the age that most of us will achieve.  Today the average American can expect to make it to 79, although the 'average American' (or Brit for that matter) is not a glowing example of a lifestyle designed to promote long life. 

For me, living a long and as healthy-as-possible a life is the holy grail. My goal is to delay the inevitable fade to black for as long as possible.  I get Emanuel's argument that living with infirmity, lengthening the dying process and becoming a burden on society is not an attractive option, but I am not about to accept that it is inevitable.   One-time killer diseases and many life-threatening medical conditions are now curable or treatable. A healthy lifestyle - plenty of physical activity and a finely tuned diet - will promote good health and longevity. Around the world, scientists are making astonishing progress in understanding the mechanists at work in promoting better health. 

As a productive 75+ year old my plan will be - yes, to enjoy life - to hopefully do some of my best work and also give back. For every day that I wake up and smell the coffee, embrace the sun's rays and breath fresh air, I want to engage and inspire others to make our world a better place.  Lofty yes - but this lifetime is the only chance I'll get.

Update 10.26.14: I recently had an opportunity to interview Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel about his Atlantic article, Why I Hope to Die at 75We spoke at BBC.com/Future's World Changing Ideas Summit in New York City.  Full BBC coverage here.

Dr. Emanuel has done a great job at getting people talking about the human life - or health - span and he makes an excellent point that life should be about living in the moment - about enjoying the 'now.'   But I am still not persuaded that life should be capped at 75 - or any number, for that matter. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Google's Calico moves forward

The unexpected, but exciting announcement last year that Google is getting into the human longevity business has move a step forward. So far, few details about the tech giant's Calico (California Life Company) venture have been revealed.  But now the company has a website which profiles some of its key appointees. They include some of the world's leading researchers in the fields of cell biology and human longevity. I am particularly excited to see that Cynthia Kenyon, the pioneering molecular biologist, is part of the team. Her work has done much to unravel the mysteries of aging - specifically that it is part of a complex, genetically controlled process. here's her inspiring TED Talk.

Other members of the Calico teams bring a wealth of experience to the project. The challenge for Calico over the coming months and years will be to embrace the global scientific community, in the fields of human longevity and gerontology, to forge partnerships and initiate new studies. I wish them well.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Periodic fasting #4 (2014)

At the beginning of this year I decided to follow a periodic fasting regime and a mostly plant based diet for at least the next 12 months.  This is the background

Day 1: Sunday July 27, 2014
This is my 4th fast this year - each one, lasting 5-days, being roughly two months apart. Today was Day 1 and as they go, it was pretty easy. It is not a total fast, so getting by on approximately 1100 calories presents no huge hardship.  Things get a more interesting from tomorrow when I will eat no more than 600 cals per day.   I'll blog on how it goes over the week, but I expect it to be reasonably easy - some mental highs, some tired evenings and a few hunger pangs, but that's about all. I'll probably lose about 6-9lbs in weight.   I'll also share some fascinating data, generated through my blood-work, which suggests I am in far better shape now than six months ago.

Day 2: Monday July 28, 2014

After a reasonably good night's sleep, the morning started well with a familiar feeling of mental alertness - more than usual - brought on by the fast. Had productive few hours in the office, after an energy bar breakfast and black coffee.  Ideally I should be doing this without the coffee - to eliminate as many external factors as possible - but I'm not there yet.  It gives me the energy I'm deprived in food - albeit caffein and not sugar. Max two cups of caffeinated coffee per day, though, during the fast period.

Usual Monday gym session at noon.  Exercise is something else I should be reducing during this period.  I take extreme care and cut back on weights. That said, I felt pretty strong today. It's only 1.5 days on a reduced diet.  A trend I've noticed following previous fasts is that while I lose skeletal muscle mass during the fast, I gain it back plus an extra pound or so, very quickly. And feel stronger.   More research is needed to understand the mechanisms at work, but it may be linked to a 'rebooting' effect of the diet, whereby the body gets rid of old and damaged cells in preparation for new growth when a normal eating pattern is resumed.
In a separate clinical trial, a similar response has been observed in relation to the immune system, as reported here.

Feeling tired by dinner time and a moderate headache.  I thought I skipped the headache phase, but not so.  Its a sign I'm into ketosis and burning fat.  Resolved by heading to bed early

Fasting triggers stem cell regeneration of damaged, old immune system

Day 3: Tuesday July 29, 2014

Its fast hump day. Half way there and doing fine so far. A productive day in the office with a live one-hour radio show at 6PM. That's around the time my energy levels usually nosedive, so I had part of my evening meal - the soup - early, for en energy boost.  plus half a cup of black coffee. It seemed to work.  

Dr Valter Longo, the USC scientist behind this diet regime, joined me for an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live.  

I struggled to eat remainder of today's food allocation. The kale chips are less and less appealing and by this stage in the fast I really have little appetite anyway. Another early night.

Day 4: Wednesday July 30, 2014

Probably at my best this morning - despite what felt like a horrible night's sleep. Typically must have been sleeping more than I thought as I tossed and turned. Had been debating whether to go to the gym today but felt good and went for it.  Turned out to a great session with heavy weight and to my huge surprise personal best stats with chin ups - somehow found energy from nowhere.  Three sets - 16/13/11 reps which is more than I can usually manage.

Afternoon and evening brought sluggishness again and a mild headache. Again, couldn't eat all the prescribed food (despite it being minuscule in portions).  Gleaned a bit of energy from eating a third of a spare energy bar, which is allowed as part of the regime. Another early night.

Day 5: Thursday July 31, 2014

Despite this week being relatively easy going it is alway good to get to Day 5.  A busy work day ahead so plenty to distract me, which is always good when fasting.

Fasting is not fun, for the most part, but far better than many of the alternatives. If the health benefits pan out, I'd settle for periodic fasting anytime, rather than the misery of chronic disease. Today was busy and probably the best day of this 5-day period. In line with previous fast, I found that my aversion to the food increased with every day.  I didn't feel hungry or that desperate to eat anything. I skipped the kale chips in the evening and submitted with 2/3 of the energy bar.  Unusually I did not feel tired in the evening and kept working until 10PM. Could have gone on further but thought it was wise to go to bed. Could not sleep for ages though - my mind was too wires. I believe there's science to explain this and I'll come back to it.

Fast #4 this year done.

My weight dropped by almost 9 lbs. The really interesting stats will be over the next few days when I monitor my recovery - speed of muscle re-growth especially.

My goal over the next 55 days or so is to maintain weight under or about 170, which feel like optimum weight for me. This will be down through, hopefully, continued skeletal muscle mass growth and slowly declining body fat.  Both appear to promoted through the fast.

Always remember, this is not primarily about weight loss - it is about the beneficial longer term effects on my body.  But weight control is a positive by-product, and I'll take that.

Now, let's eat!

Background notes:
Only food provided by University of Southern California scientists, via L-Nutra, a spin off company from USC, are consumed during the 5-day fast. They are not, currently, available for sale.
Earlier BBC stories: 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Olympic swimming coach Teri McKeever

Monday, May 12, 2014

Man Utd coach Phil Neville adopts a plant-based diet

Does a plant-based diet affect athletic performance? Here's an interesting take from one of the world's top football coaches.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

"Age is just a number"

The inspirational story of a nonagenarian athlete. I see age 70+ swimmers, runners and cyclists all the time - but Olga Kotelko is still breaking records at 95.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Longest separated twins reunited at 78

A fascinating story: Fraternal twins, separated as babies but reunited at the age of 78. I met both Ann and Elizabeth and witnessed their emotional reunion. What will be even more interesting is the clinical study in which they have both agreed to take part. Researchers at the University of California plan to analyze their lives - lifestyle, diet, social experiences and much more - along with their current state of physical and mental health. The results could provide a fascinating insight into the key factors influencing their level of wellbeing as well as the aging process.