Christoph Westphal

A simple, hard answer to long life

By Christoph Westphal
July 5, 2010

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FRIENDS OCCASIONALLY ask me how they might best live healthy, longer. They inquire because I went to medical school, work in biotech, and focus professionally on developing drugs to treat diseases of aging by targeting aging genes. My response seems to surprise them, because it does not center on pharmaceutical products. The current answer on how to increase healthy human lifespan is simple: “Eat less, and exercise more.’’

Why do I not, in the first instance, suggest the use of medications or other medical interventions? The reason is straightforward. The experiment has been run in humans where certain groups of individuals appear to live longer, healthier lives than the general population without resorting to modern Western medicine. One such group of longer-lived individuals is the Seventh Day Adventists, but there are additional examples such as Okinawans, who also have historically modest diets and exhibit remarkable longevity.

Seventh Day Adventists view their bodies as “temples of the Holy Spirit’’ which require thoughtful care via healthy exercise and diet. Rigorous academic studies have shown that Seventh Day Adventists live more than five years longer than similar populations. An important advantage appears to be lifelong modest diet and exercise, tied to specific religious beliefs. Importantly, this increased lifespan is accompanied by improved health.

The residents of the southern Japanese island of Okinawa are another population with longer healthy lifespans. Okinawans have historically consumed fewer calories and been more physically active than other Japanese. Controlling for multiple variables, academic studies indicate that Okinawans are healthy for longer because they may be physically more active, and consume fewer calories in a diet rich in fish and vegetables.

What can we learn from Seventh Day Adventists and Okinawans? Neither population takes special advantage of modern medicine. They do not use more pharmaceutical drugs, nor do they undergo more medical procedures. Instead, both groups focus on a healthy diet and exercise. They have reduced calorie intake, lower rates of overweight, and increased physical activity. Hence, at least two human populations have shown that the best way we can live healthy longer is bafflingly simple, if hard to emulate.

Given these insights, it is especially troubling that the United States is experiencing an obesity epidemic. Roughly two-thirds of the US adult population is overweight or obese, and the problem appears to be worsening. Michelle Obama recently initiated a campaign to improve childhood nutrition and increase exercise. This is an important initiative that can improve the health of our population.

Much more societal focus should be brought to bear on this problem, given the enormous potential for positive impacts. In fact, recent analyses indicate that one of the greatest impediments to increasing healthy lifespan is obesity. The average lifespan has increased consistently in the United States from a life expectancy at birth of around 47 years in 1900, up to roughly 77 today. Worryingly, leading aging experts are now predicting that further increases in healthy lifespan may grind to a halt, given the added health burdens caused by obesity.

Increasing healthy lifespan has always been a goal of medicine. Some of the greatest advances in achieving it have been public health measures — clean drinking water and improved hygiene. Similarly, one of the most important current means to increasing healthy lifespan may be via public health measures that help Americans to muster the willpower to eat less and exercise more.

Modern medicine has discovered an impressive number of lifesaving new drugs for devastating diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and infectious diseases. Nevertheless, for most of us, active lifestyles and less food will have a more profound effect than taking more medicines. Hard as it is, we should walk, run, and bike more, and reduce our food intake. The best way we can increase our chances to live healthy, longer is simple: eat less and exercise more.

Christoph Westphal, a guest columnist, is a biotech entrepreneur and a partner at Longwood Founders Fund.

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