Photograph by David Goehring/Creative Commons 2.0
Photograph by David Goehring/Creative Commons 2.0

The Search for Immortality in Food

Henry Ford was funny about food. He was anti-milk (“the cow is the crudest machine in the world”) and anti-meat (“chicken is only fit for hawks”). He shunned sweets and would drink only tepid water. And he was convinced that carrots held the secret to longevity.

At one point, to promote his favored vegetable, he hosted an all-carrot dinner, which began with carrot soup and proceeded through carrot mousse, carrot salad, pickled carrots, carrots au gratin, carrot loaf, and carrot ice cream, all washed down with glass after glass of carrot juice.

Ford also touted soybeans, cracked wheat, and buckwheat pancakes. He lived to be 83.

People have been obsessed with longevity for millennia, ever since it dawned on us that life has an unwelcome endpoint. In the Sumerian Epic of GilgameshSumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates at least to 2,600 BCE, Gilgamesh braves lions, scorpion-men, and giants to find the source of eternal life. He finally does, in the shape of a thorny plant that grows at the bottom of the sea, but it’s stolen from him by a serpent before he gets a chance to use it.

Alexander the Great’s aggressive career is said to have been inspired as much by the hope of discovering a river that could reverse aging as about world domination. Juan Ponce de Leon was searching for the legendary Fountain of Youth in 1513 when he discovered Florida—now, in an ironic twist of fate, the state with the oldest population in the U.S. One story holds that the Chinese invented gunpowder by mistake in the process of searching for an elixir of immortality.

Diet for a Long Life

For much of human history, life expectancy at birth has hovered somewhere between the late twenties and early thirties. This doesn’t mean that some people in each generation didn’t beat the depressing odds. In 1681, philosopher John Locke recorded in his journal an account of his meeting with Alice George of Oxford, said to be 108 years old. She was in good health, he reports, could see well enough to thread a needle, and lived primarily on bread, cheese, and beer.

Alice came of a long-lived family. Her father, writes Locke, lived to the age of 83, her mother to 96, and her grandmother to 111. In other words, chances are that Alice had lucked into a set of good genes.

Scientists estimate that about 20 percent to 30 percent of a person’s lifespan depends on genetics. The rest is the result of a mixed bag of environmental and lifestyle factors, among these social interactions, physical activity, and food. This all seems to come together in ideal proportions in regions known as “blue zones,” originally identified by researchers Michel Poulain and Giovanni Pes as areas of the globe where people live impressively long, happy, and healthy lives. Worldwide, there are at least five such pockets of spectacular longevity: Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica; and the Greek island of Icaria in the north Aegean Sea. Icaria-named for the famously short-lived Icarus, he of the unstable wax-coated wings-has the highest percentage of nonagenarians on the planet. One out of every three Icarians lives into his or her nineties.

Gerontologists—and all the rest of us—naturally want to know just what blue-zone dwellers do to make it into robust old age. The truth is that they don’t seem to do anything much. People in the blue zones live in small supportive communities. They get a good night’s sleep, wake up when they feel like it in the morning, and take naps in the afternoon. They don’t smoke. They exercise in moderation—none of those obsessive workouts at the gym. Blue-zoners garden, walk to the post office and the local shops, and climb stairs. They have close relationships with family and friends. So…what do they eat?

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Photograph by Flickr user Monica/Creative Commons 2.0

Eat Two Pounds of Chocolate a Week 

In general, blue zone diets are low in saturated fats, as in such western cardiac banes as red meat. Icarians eat six times as many beans as Americans do, and just a quarter as much refined sugar. They drink, on average, three cups of coffee and two to four glasses of wine a day, eat fish twice a week, and consume a lot of olive oil, fresh fruits and vegetables, and herbal teas. The Californians of Loma Linda—Seventh-Day Adventists—forego smoking and drinking, but stick to a vegetarian diet. Okinawans, subject of a book by gerontologist Craig Willcox, eat three or more servings of fish each week, along with whole grains, vegetables, soy products, tofu, and seaweed. The result, says Willcox, is a low risk of arteriosclerosis, stomach cancer, and such hormone-dependent cancers as breast and prostate cancer.

On the other hand, not all the healthy ultra-elderly live in blue zones. Jeanne Calment of Arles, France, died in 1997 at the age of 122- the oldest human being on record; as a teenager, she remembered Vincent van Gogh (dirty and disagreeable, she said) buying paints at her father’s shop. Jeanne’s diet included port, cigarettes, and two pounds of chocolate a week. New York’s famous Delany sisters, Sadie and Bessie, who lived respectively to the ages of 109 and 104, attributed their longevity to yoga, cod liver oil, and daily doses of garlic. Pearl Cantrell of Richland Springs, Texas, who died last year at the age of 105, claimed the secret to long life was bacon; and Britain’s oldest citizen, 109-year-old Ralph Tarrant, swears by whisky and cottage pie.

While a few genetically privileged souls may survive a century or more on cigarettes and bacon, health science researchers point out that most of us are better off following a less risky regimen. Recommended are blueberries, grapes, nuts, and red beans, all great sources of anti-oxidants-chemicals that mop up damaging free radicals. Free radicals, molecules with itchy unpaired electrons, are the inevitable offshoots of metabolism-over 20 billion of these are formed by each of our body’s cells every day. Left to themselves, free radicals annihilate vital cellular components, including our cell membranes and our all-important DNA. A prominent theory of aging blames the unpleasant process on free radicals: eventually enough damage accumulates from these relentless molecules that we simply fall apart.

Fish and shellfish, high in omega-3 fats, have been shown to protect people from cardiac disease, and coffee (three to five cups a day), according to a 2009 study, lowers the risk of Type II diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

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Photograph by Armin Rodler/Creative Commons 2.0

Vampire Therapy Gives Mice a New Lease on Life

Also high on the latest recommended anti-aging list is turmeric, a perennial plant native to India, related to ginger. Tumeric rhizomes, boiled and dried, are ground into an orange-y powder used in curries and yellow mustard. It’s also a common ingredient in traditional Asian medicine. Recently, however, researchers have shown that a component of turmeric, ar-turmerone, can cause nerve cells to regenerate in cell cultures and in the brains of lab animals. If the same effect occurs in humans, researchers suggest, turmeric may be able to counter such neurodegenerative conditions as Alzheimer’s disease. Barring that, turmeric also contains curcumin, an anti-oxidant, so the recommended (by some) dose of a teaspoon a day certainly can’t hurt.

Less congenial for most of us is the argument that, for longer life, we should simply eat a whole lot less. Some research indicates that dropping caloric intake by 30 percent boosts longevity and reduces the chance of chronic disease. At least it’s true in roundworms and rats, though the picture is more complex in primates. A recently completed 25-year study of (hungry) rhesus monkeys at the National Institute of Aging showed no effect, indicating that food deprivation may not be the golden ticket to eternal youth.

The latest in non-aging, however, involves injecting mice nearing two years old—the decrepit sunset years for mice–with blood from young, springy, healthy mice. This so-called “vampire therapy” gives elderly mice a new lease on life. Treated rodents showed increased muscle strength—they could run on a treadmill as long and as energetically as young mice—and marked improvements in memory and learning ability. The crucial factor appears to be a protein called growth differentiation factor 11 (GDF 11), present in large amounts in the blood of the young, that dwindles with age. Plans for human trials are in the works.

In the meantime, researchers agree that multiple factors contribute to longevity, not least of which is a social component. For a long life, in other words, have dinner with friends. Maybe chat over an antioxidant-laden bowl of blueberries, an ar-turmerone-enhanced plate of curry, and a relaxing glass of red wine.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.