Monday, January 25, 2010

Aubrey de Grey in Helsinki, Finland

Aubrey de Grey wants to prevent aging and has an idea how to do it.
Aubrey de Grey wants to prevent aging and has an idea how to do it.

This weekend, I got a chance to see a presentation by the brilliant Dr. Aubrey de Grey. His visit to Finland came unexpectedly to me, but luckily I got the word a day before and managed to see him in person. Much of the things he talked about I was already familiar with from his earlier presentations, but there were also bits and pieces that were new to me.

The whole two hours was videotaped by the organizers – a rather surprising co-effort between the Finnish Transhumanist Association and the Green League of Finland – but as far as I know, it's not online yet. I will link to it from this post once it is. UPDATE: And here it is (it's in 12 pieces because of Youtube's limitation):


All in all, I found the presentation very understandable, concise and even entertaining. Everything except maybe the part about the seven types of aging damage was understandable even for the layperson. If you have doubts about whether ending aging is desirable or possible, I very much recommend watching some of his lectures online. They're also very useful if you want to convince others that the fight against aging is an important one.

One thing I noticed Aubrey does well (and I don't) is to counter arguments by people whose life philosophy is, in my opinion, grounded on bad logic. For example, he gave a good response to the religious objection that life extension is a sin, arguing that it's essentially the other way around, because not doing anything to aging is the same thing as allowing suffering, which must be wrong.

Personally, I have very little tolerance for this kind of religious arguments, because I mostly feel it's useless to try to convince a religious person of anything using rational arguments. Yet, to make the life extension meme spread, the patience to convince even irrational people using their own logic is necessary. My hat off to de Grey for having that patience.

There are all kinds of variations on the argument that stopping aging is a sin. Even many atheists fall for the idea that aging is natural and therefore good. Aubrey poked fun at this, saying that in any other field arguments like this would be considered childishly absurd, but that for some reason they pass as reasonable among gerontologists. One of the strongest arguments against this is that every kind of medical intervention we have is just as "unnatural" as curing aging. So logically, if you think we shouldn't do anything about aging, you should also oppose curing diseases such as cancer, diabetes, etc. Yet almost no one is willing to decline cancer treatments if they happen to get sick.

This is also related to another common display of irrational thinking: that if you ask people "what do you want to die of?" none of them will answer they want to die of cancer or diabetes. Instead, most people will answer that they prefer to die "naturally" of "old age". This is of course complete nonsense, because old people don't die just because they're chronologically old, they die because their bodies don't function as well as they did when they were chronologically young. Even when people say someone died of old age, in reality they died from the accumulation of damage in the body. If you want to prevent this damage from killing you when you're young, why wouldn't you want to do the same when you're old?

Another important point is that unlike what people imagine their own death to be like – quick and painless – for the overwhelming majority of the world's population it is nothing of the sort. What it is is a slow decline in physical and mental capabilities followed by a complete collapse and, ultimately, death. It is a process of slow deterioration that goes on for decades, with each decade being progressively worse in terms of biological functions than the previous one. To wish such a fate upon yourself is irrational, and to wish it upon others is just evil.

The overpopulation argument is a popular one but shows such incapability of imagination that I really have to push myself these days to counter it. I watched Aubrey counter it at least twice; once during the presentation and once during the Q&A session. It still blows my mind that people can even consider sacrificing the lives of millions now in order to avoid a possible risk of overpopulation in the future.

I really feel that this argument is not the result of rational thinking but rather the result of a need to avoid cognitive dissonance in someone who first encounters the idea of living significantly longer. It's a quick anesthetic, for the part of the brain that desperately tries to scream that ending aging is both desirable and possible, by the part of the brain that desperately wants to cling on to existing conditions.

Yet another typical objection to ending aging is that rejuvenation therapies would only be available to the rich. Aubrey's refutation to this is that governments simply cannot afford to do this, because aging costs society an incredible amount of money each year and that putting old people back into the workforce would bring wealth. While I agree with him that it would be foolish for a state to restrict access to rejuvenation therapies, I also find the idea of forcing people at gunpoint (i.e. collecting taxes) to pay for someone else's therapy repulsive. I think the private sector will play a much bigger role than the public sector once the first treatments hit the market. Offering them just to the extremely rich is economically stupid.

Naturally, Aubrey de Grey also talked about how we might go about fixing aging. I've written about the basic idea in the post about the seven types of aging damage, so I won't go into it here. There were some interesting points raised during the Q&A session, however, such as using nanotechnology in rejuvenation therapies and replacing organs or even entire bodies instead of rejuvenating them. While de Grey seemed to agree in principle with what Ray Kurzweil predicts will happen, his own prediction was that future rejuvenation therapies would take on a more traditional biological approach first – injections and stem cell treatments, for example. The second generation of therapies might be something more radical.

If you're in any way interested in anti-aging, I highly recommend you watch at least one of Aubrey's presentations online (see here and here for examples). The reason he's out there giving presentations in the first place is to make people aware that combatting aging is not just science fiction. It will happen sooner or later, and if we want to make it happen sooner, the message needs to be heard.

As I'm sure you've noticed, a part of the reason this blog exists is to inform people about the cause. This includes discussing both why life extension is desirable and how it might be possible. I urge everyone to get familiar with the most common objections people have to fighting aging, to understand the counterarguments to the objections, and to go out there and talk to people.

Yes, they will probably think you're crazy at first, and then they'll try to show that you're wrong. But in the end, they will be there in the rejuvenation therapy queue, telling you how they always knew we would one day conquer aging.

For more information on aging and how to prevent it, see these posts:

Anti-Aging in the Media: The Independent on Immortality
Why Aging Is a Global Disaster That Needs to Be Solved
The 7 Types of Aging Damage That End up Killing You
Biotechnology and the Future of Aging

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Giving Heat Shocks to Roundworms Extends Lifespan by Almost 40%


Would 6 heat shocks be the magic number for longevity? (Photo by pshutterbug)

Hormesis is an idea that has been getting a lot of attention recently in the anti-aging circles. The basic idea behind it is that a certain amount of stress may in fact be good for an organism.

There's a lot of scientific evidence in support of this idea, the most famous example being exercise. The view that all exercise is uniformly good for you is a common but naive view – we now know that it's the adaptation to the stress from exercise that brings the health benefits. The stress, which is bad in the short-term, causes the body to increase its own defense mechanisms, which is good in the long term.

So exercise is a useful and simple way to induce hormesis. Another common way to stress an organism is to give it heat shocks. Exposing lower organisms such as nematodes and fruit flies to heat stress generally makes them live longer.

The question, then, is what kind of heat shocks are the most useful ones for increasing lifespan? Just like exercise can be overdone and cause health problems (marathon runners are a common example), heat shocks can decrease lifespan in animals if they're used too much.

In a recent study by Wu et al., a varying number of heat shocks in varying temperatures was given to Caenorhabditis elegans to see how they affected lifespan (link). In this post, we'll take a look at the paper in more detail.

Young roundworm adults were divided into six groups, with each group given between 0 to 5 heat shocks during their lifespan. The heat shocks were given every 3 days, with heat exposure times being slightly shorter with each consecutive treatment. On the first day, all worms except those in the control group were heated at 35 °C for one hour. On the fourth day (groups 2-6), the treatment was 55 minutes at the same temperature, and so on. Two independent experiments were done:

In the first experiment, the mean lifespans of animals heatshocked, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 times are 19.0, 21.9, 23.7, 24.9, 25.8, and 26.4 days, respectively.

That is, with just one heat shock early in life, mean lifespan increased by 15.3%. With five heat shocks administered throughout life, mean lifespan extension was 38.9%. Here's the survival graph for the first experiment:


Hormesis: heat shocks and lifespan in roundworms
The second experiment gave similar results:

A single heat-shock on day 1 of adulthood significantly increased longevity (a 16.7% increase compared to controls). Multiple heat-shocks of 2, 3, 4, or 5 times extended mean life span 24.2%, 29.3%, 34.3%, or 38.4% as compared to controls.

As you can see from the graph and the data, the number of heat shocks is positively correlated with lifespan. Sounds good, right? A slight caveat:

Repeated exposure to mild heat-stress can significantly extend longevity; each single heatshock has a hormetic effect on life span, but the magnitude of the hormetic effect of additional single heat-shocks decreases as the animals age.

In other words, the older the nematodes get, the less they benefit from heat stress. It's worth noting that the duration of the heat shocks was also decreased with age – however, I assume the authors did this because longer durations would have been less than optimal in aged animals. Thus, just as the U-shaped curve of hormesis suggests, the benefits of heat stress are limited and that you can't simply heat-shock an organism into immortality.

The authors stress the distinction between initial mortality and the rate of increase in mortality, two aspects of the famous Gompertz mortality curve. Put simply, the curve expresses the exponential increase in biological aging after a certain point in time – which explains why more people make it from age 21 to 22 than from 77 to 78.

According to the authors, one heat shock early in life only decreases initial mortality without affecting the rate of increase in mortality, while multiple heat shocks affects both. On the other hand, they note that the Gompertz model does not fit perfectly with the lifespan of C. elegans (for example, the rate of increase in mortality seems to slow down with age). I'm not sure how useful this distinction is here anyway. Regardless of which factor is affected, the end result is that as the number of heat shocks increases, so does lifespan. Whether more than 5 heat shocks would've resulted in a longer or shorter lifespan is not known.

These results of course raise the question of whether heat stress might also extend lifespan in humans. Specifically, sauna as a potential anti-aging strategy comes to mind. I've only briefly looked into this, but so far I haven't found much evidence of a similar longevity effect in humans. Furthermore, the life expectancy in Finland – where saunas are very common – isn't exceptionally long compared to other Nordic countries. Still, a closer look is in order at some point.

For more information on lifespan and hormesis, see these posts:

My Current Health Regimen
Anti-Aging in the Media: New York Times on Caloric Restriction and Resveratrol
L-Carnitine, Exercise Performance & Oxidative Stress
Why Aging Is a Global Disaster That Needs to Be Solved

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Monday, January 11, 2010

New York Times on Paleo Diets and Intermittent Fasting

For some paleo folks, tomatoes are the devil's fruit.
For some paleo folks, tomatoes are the devil's fruit. (Photo by LensENVY)

I usually only mention newspaper articles that have to do with anti-aging, but I thought this recent piece in The New York Times was interesting enough to write a quick post on (thanks to Stephan at Whole Health Source for the tip).

Calorie restriction has been in the news quite a few times in the past few years, but it seems the media is only now picking up on paleolithic diets. For some reason the term "caveman diet" is mentioned throughout the article, even though I don't see anyone in the paleo community using the c-word these days. Despite finding myself in disagreement over some of the details, I thought the whole thing was a fairly good representation of what the paleolithic way is about:

The caveman lifestyle, in Mr. Durant’s interpretation, involves eating large quantities of meat and then fasting between meals to approximate the lean times that his distant ancestors faced between hunts. Vegetables and fruit are fine, but he avoids foods like bread that were unavailable before the invention of agriculture.

Of course, not everyone who follows a paleo diet does intermittent fasting at the same time, but it does seem to be fairly common. The evolutionary reasoning behind regular (or irregular) fasting seems sound enough to me, but apparently some people disagree:

Experts in early humans dispute some of the tenets of latter-day paleos, including the belief that fasting is beneficial and that the body is unequipped to handle an agriculture-based diet.

Just who these experts are is unknown. Hopefully not the government officials that guard the sacred food pyramid with their lives. As far as I know, we don't have much reliable evidence of how long our caveman ancestors really went between meals, and I have seen some arguments that perhaps food shortages weren't all that common after all. Maybe so. But I would like to know what exactly these experts mean by our bodies being equipped to handle a diet based on agriculture.

No paleo lifestyle would be complete without some caveman exercises, of which the article (or rather, the people mentioned in the article) seem to give an overly optimistic view. I've no doubt that stone age people were strong, but to say that their amazing feats would awe the modern man may be a bit of a stretch. Still, that hasn't stopped people from swearing in the name of CrossFit:

Another source of paleo converts is CrossFit, a fitness program known for grueling workouts combining weightlifting and gymnastics. CrossFit trainers, who teach at more than 1,200 gyms and other affiliates across the country, generally encourage clients to follow either a caveman diet or the Zone diet, which requires tracking calories. “Some of the gyms have hardcore paleo folks, and if you’re a member of that gym then you’re paleo, while other gyms are hardcore Zone,” said Anthony Budding, who manages the content on CrossFit.com.

How the Zone diet is compatible with paleolithic nutrition is beyond me, but as Kurt Harris writes on the PaNu blog, it may just be taking over the CrossFit gyms as the "official diet" this year.

So we have caveman foods, caveman fasting, and caveman exercise, all done in a fashionable New York style. But let's not forget that life in those days was nasty, brutish, and short. And full of dangers:

Another caveman trick involves donating blood frequently. The idea is that various hardships might have occasionally left ancient humans a pint short.

I've heard this theory before, but I'm still not convinced it's accurate. Don't get me wrong, I think donating blood may indeed be useful, for example to get rid of excess iron. If the mineral theory of aging has any merit, this may be even more important. But since average lifespan was very short in those days, alleviating the accumulation of minerals through bloodletting doesn't seem like an important evolutionary mechanism from a paleolithic perspective.

Some funny puritanism apparently going on among the paleo crowd, too:

“Cavemen don’t eat nightshades,” Mr. Averbukh, 29, said. He explained that tomatoes are part of the nightshade family, arguing that they are native to the New World and could not have been part of humanity’s earliest diet. Mr. Averbukh is a pre-Promethean sort of caveman. Much of his nourishment comes from grass-fed ground beef, which he eats raw. In a bow to the times, he sometimes uses a fork.

This is precisely the gripe I have with some paleo people. What does it matter if our ancestors ate tomatoes or not? Just because we didn't eat something in the past doesn't necessarily mean it's not healthy for us, and vice versa. They didn't drink green tea either, but does that mean it can't be healthy for us? Of course not. And health is really the only interesting goal here, not trying to actually live the life of a cavemen in every possible way.

Besides, there's no way to completely emulate a stone age diet anyway. Or does Mr. Averbukh think cavemen ate grass-fed ground beef? Does he ever eat fruit or vegetables? Because the cows and the oranges we have today aren't like they used to be back in the day. I wonder if he ever buys clothes from a store "in a bow to the times".

I'm glad most people in the paleo circles have more sense than that. I quite like Mr. Durant's idea for a paleo restaurant:

With this view of humanity’s past, what does Mr. Durant see in his future? One idea is a restaurant called B.C. or Wild. Just in case he develops the right business model, Mr. Durant has bought the domain name hunter-gatherer.com.

Seeing how low-carb diets are already pretty popular, and paleolithic diets are often low in carbohydrates, I don't see why such an idea might not work. Yes, vegan restaurants are probably still the fashionable thing in New York, but that may just change in the future.

For more information on diets and fasting, see these posts:

How to Deal With the 5 Most Common Difficulties of Fasting
Alternate-Day Feeding and Weight Loss: Is It the Calories Or the Fasting?
A Typical Paleolithic High-Fat, Low-Carb Meal of an Intermittent Faster
Blood Test Analysis: The Cholesterol and Saturated Fat Issue Revisited

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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

How to Deal With the 5 Most Common Difficulties of Fasting

How to Deal With the 5 Most Common Difficulties of Fasting
Can't get no sleep? Find something else to do. (Photo by babblingdweeb)

If you've tried fasting or are planning to do so, you're bound to run into at least some of the problems mentioned below. Based on my personal experience, they appear to some degree regardless of whether you're doing intermittent fasting or the occasional longer fast.

While these side effects of going without food may not be pleasant, the good news is that there are ways to deal with them. And, at the very least, knowing what they are beforehand helps you to prepare yourself mentally. Once you get acquainted with them, it becomes easier to detach yourself from them and to see them more objectively for what they really are: mere hurdles on the way to better health.

1. Feeling of hunger

This is the obvious one, of course. The feeling of hunger is the first effect to kick in once you stop eating. Depending on what and how much you ate prior to the fast, it may take anywhere between an hour and half a day before your stomach starts to growl again.

The key to tackling this problem is understanding how the feeling of hunger comes and goes during fasting. Many people who fast for several days at a time report that the hunger subsides after the first few days, after which the whole thing gets much easier. Thus, it may in fact be easier to do a 4-day fast once a month rather than a 2-day fast twice a month.

However, there is a definite hunger cycle noticeable even during one-day fasts (e.g. intermittent fasting or alternate-day feeding). I find that I usually experience my first hunger pang about 4 hours after the last meal. At this point, it's not even a feeling of needing more energy, it's just a slight craving to eat something, and thus pretty easy to ignore. Drinking something helps.

The cravings then disappear for many hours, and about 18 hours into the fast, a more serious hunger emerges. This is the point at which the temptation to break the fast is at its greatest. However, if you can force yourself to pull through, the hunger subsides after a few hours. Drinking coffee or tea is helpful; just don't forget to drink water also. Another efficient way is to find something else to think about. When you're concentrating on, say, your work or a hobby, you'll find that it's quite easy to go through this phase, and it's smooth sailing from there on again.

2. Fatique and brain fog

Well, almost smooth. With the disappearance of hunger comes a new hurdle: physical fatique and brain fog. At this point, the idea of eating seems appealing not so much because of cravings but because you find your energy reserves temporarily depleted. Sitting on a chair and staring at the wall seems like a strenous exercise. You can forget solving complex mathematical problems during this time.

As with hunger, the key is to know that these negative effects will pass. In fact, they will pass even more quickly than the hunger. I find that during a 24-hour fast, the brain fog and fatique start to subside after an hour or so. While focusing on something else is a good way to skip through the hunger phases, it's very difficult to focus on anything during the brain fog phase. Hence, I just tend to wait them out, staring at the cubicle wall in my fasting-induced trance. Trying to lift the fog with a couple of shots of espresso is... interesting. But don't take my word for it, try it for yourself.

A note about dry fasting (which is going without food and water): the fatique and brain fog phase seems to last much longer with dry fasts than normal fasts. Though you may go into ketosis quicker with this method, be prepared to endure some hours of fatique before the switch happens. I did not find any good way to get around this during my dry fast experiment.

3. Dry mouth

I must admit I haven't read that many reports about this particular difficulty from other fasters, but I frequently notice it myself. The obvious solution is of course to drink more water. It does indeed help, but I find that a dry mouth during fasting is not only related to drinking water but also to the lack of food itself. That is, no matter how much water you drink (and if you're not eating, most of it will just flush out quickly), the feeling of a dry mouth may persist. Still, the problem can be minimized with enough hydration.

My suspicion is that the lack of nutrients during fasting may explain this phenomenon; for example, on some days taking a magnesium supplement seems to help, and eating something even without drinking (after the fast, of course) often gets rid of the problem. Whether it's really related to dehydration at some level, I don't know. Tea and coffee are good ways to boost energy levels while on an empty stomach, but keep in mind that they also make the dry mouth worse. This can be relieved by drinking a glass of water for every cup of coffee or tea.

During dry fasting, this was a major problem for me. While it's easy to tell yourself that going without food is good for you and that the hunger will pass soon enough, it's much more difficult to do the same with water. Even half a glass seems so tempting that it takes quite a bit of willpower to endure the thirst and dehydration.

4. Sensitivity to cold

An increased sensitivity to cold is a common problem with those who practice (chronic) calorie restriction, but the "less energy, less body heat" rule applies to fasting as well. However, in the case of short-term fasts, the effect is only temporary. During the first 12 hours of the fast, nothing really significant happens, but from there on, the sensitivity to cold begins to make its appearance. The most pronounced effect is seen towards the end of the 24-hour fast.

Happily, this is probably one of the easiest problems to fix. If you're just sitting at your desk the whole day, the feeling of cold will creep up on you and make you wonder who turned off the heating. But once you've made it past the dreaded hour of brain fog, a great way to crank up the internal heat system is exercise. It's at this point that you begin to feel many of the positive effects of fasting: increased energy, improved mood, feeling of lightness, etc. I find my motivation to do some exercise is also enhanced.

I've tried both aerobic and anaerobic exercise, and the latter seems to me much more enjoyable towards the end of fasting. With running, I get exhausted fairly quickly compared to running after a breakfast, but with strength training I feel a tremendous boost in mental and physical energy compared to just doing nothing while waiting for the fast to end. I'm sure you won't break any records at weight lifting under a fasted condition, but for improving your well-being and avoiding the feeling of cold, strength training is highly recommendable.

5. Trouble falling asleep

This is a common problem with longer fasts and among those who have just started to do shorter fasts. With intermittent fasting, it may take a while to get used to going to bed without a dinner or an evening snack, but after an induction period, it's no problem. You may even find that you sleep better than you did before and need less sleep.

With fasts lasting several days, trouble falling asleep at night may persist. Especially if you're trying to call it a night while you're experiencing one of the more serious hunger pangs, you'll probably find it very difficult to fall asleep. You'll just be tormented by vivid images of cheeseburgers and bacon until you pass out from sheer exhaustion. With dry fasting, you can add cans of soda into the imagery.

While my experience is mostly with intermittent fasting, I've heard that the inability to sleep properly continues throughout the fast despite the fact that many of the other hurdles are already behind. So you'll spend your day feeling energetic and your night feeling, well, energetic. Some ways of relieving this problem are: drinking water to temporarily mask the hunger, avoiding caffeine well before bedtime, and drinking relaxing teas (such as rooibos). And of course, you can simply try to use the time for something more productive than sleeping!

Conclusion

Everybody probably reacts to fasting slightly differently, and the length of the fast will surely affect the degree to which you experience problems along the way. Nonetheless, based on my experiences and those of others, the above list describes most of the common side effects of fasting, along with suggestions on how to deal with them.

Here's a summary of the remedies in neat bullet points:
  • Identify the hunger cycle and learn how to 'detach' yourself
  • Drink enough water (especially if you're drinking coffee or tea)
  • Do something that takes your mind off food
  • Wait out the dreaded hour of brain fog
  • Hit the gym to improve mood and avoid feeling cold
  • Don't drink caffeine before bedtime
  • If you can't sleep, do something else!
If you have other suggestions for ways to deal with fasting, share them in the comment section! For more information on fasting, see these posts:

Alternate-Day Feeding and Weight Loss: Is It the Calories Or the Fasting?
A Year of Intermittent Fasting: ADF, Condensed Eating Window, Weight Loss, And More
Slowing Down Aging with Intermittent Protein Restriction
Intermittent Fasting: Switching from Alternate-Day Fasting to Condensed Eating Window

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