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The Next Chapter: Genes, gym or a bit of both?

Peter Allison & Peter Bowes

Peter Allison and Peter Bowes – school friends 50 years ago, now contemplating the next chapter in life – return with another conversation about the latest science that could help us achieve a longer healthspan.

In this episode we discuss:

  • Are our longevity goals too perfectionistic? We reflect on an earlier LLAMA podcast interview with Dr. Thomas Curran and how perfectionism can sometimes hinder success with diminishing returns – focusing too much on achieving goals rather than enjoying the journey.
  • National Institutes of Health study, published Oct 13, 2023 in Aging Cell, suggests even a small reduction (12%) in daily calories is beneficial for wellness.  In the study participants experienced muscle mass loss but maintained muscle strength, suggesting that calorie restriction can improve ‘muscle specific force.’
  • Do you have what it takes to live to 100? An article in The Wall Street Journal by Alex Janin suggests, “It’s Not Good Habits; Good genes matter more  the older you get.”  How does that impact our attitude towards exercise and other lifestyle hacks to try to optimize healthspan?  The article suggests that genetics play a larger role in living past the age of 90, with approximately 50% of the ability to live to 100 being determined by genetics

Earlier conversations between Peter A. and Peter B.

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TRANSCRIPT – This conversation was recorded on October 17, 2023 and transcribed using Sonix AI. Please check against audio recording for absolute accuracy.

Peter Bowes: Perfectionism, calorie restriction and good genes. Our topics for this episode. Hello again, I’m Peter Bowes. This is the Live Long and Master Aging podcast. Peter Allison, my school pal from 50 years ago, is with me for another conversation in which we contemplate the future, review the latest longevity science, and ruminate over the aging process. We’re both settling into our 60s and have a vested interest in that subject. Peter, I’m in Los Angeles. You’re in the UK, where I gather the big decision of the week is whether or not to switch on the central heating as the winter encroaches.

Peter Allison: Oh, I cracked this morning. I came and switched it on. My wife was complaining about the cold, so she went to. I’ll tell this to everybody who’s listening. My wife found a spare pair of pajamas and was wrapped her head up in her spare pair of pajamas last night, so I felt a little bit guilty about just being sort of a combination of just refusing to try and refusing to put the heating on so that I’ll give up. So put it on.

Peter Bowes: That creates an interesting mental image of the pajamas wrapped around her head.

Peter Allison: I woke up this morning and I thought, well, you’ve got a turban on.

Peter Bowes: So Peter, I want to talk to you this week. At least one of the topics I just mentioned, perfectionism. The last episode that I published a couple of weeks ago with an assistant professor of psychology at the London School of Economics, Thomas Curran, who has written a fascinating book about perfectionism, everyone’s favorite flaw. It’s something you might describe about yourself at a job interview. You got any flaws? Yeah, I’m a perfectionist, supposedly to impress someone, whereas his theory is that perfectionism actually can be, or at least can lead to quite a stressful lifestyle, and that it might be better just to focus on good enough. I was interested just to apply this to what you and I talk about, and that is aging and longevity with the the thought, are we sometimes striving to be too good, too perfect in what we were seeking to achieve?

Peter Allison: I think perfectionism is often portrayed as a beneficial trait. And I’m not quite sure that it is. I think sometimes that perfectionism is the enemy of success. I think because sometimes perfectionism means that you are ever striving to achieve goals which are no longer cost effective. Because if you put the cost that you’re putting into the achievement of the goal, well, sometimes you get to a point of diminishing returns. And so then perfection means that you are striving for diminishing returns, when maybe, perhaps the right choice is to think, I will now have another goal.

Peter Bowes: I wonder if a little bit like a genetic predisposition to get certain diseases, whether perfectionism is something that is built into us, and it’s just like some people stay up late at night, they are night owls. Some of us get up early in the morning. I wonder if some of us are predisposed to be perfectionists, and that it’s something that we maybe have to work quite hard to shake off?

Peter Allison: Well, it’s difficult to well, I’m thinking about that because I think I have at times, I have at times been something of a perfectionist, and I think that I probably got it off my father, probably from behavior, and I could easily have been from behavior rather than genes. Right. And looking back at my, the way my if I was, it was if I was doing some sort of like DIY work type thing, I would view my dad as being a perfectionist. Although in hindsight he seemed to be a perfectionist because he was so much better at it than me. So it seemed like perfection. But the reality of it was he would get something good enough, and then he’d say, nobody’s going to spot the difference, so just leave it. So it was my perfect, my. I perceived him to be a perfectionist, but really, he was just so much better than me. But he managed his own performance. So maybe he wasn’t such a perfectionist, but I think that’s probably where I picked it up from. 

Peter Bowes: And as I say, I try to apply this idea to what we do in terms of diet, exercise, thinking about longevity. And I guess sometimes in my life I’ve applied or tried to apply a certain exercise regime or diet to 100% to to not have the cheat days in the diet. And over the years, I’ve developed the mindset that I think we need cheat days, whether it applies to what we eat or even the exercise regime, that we don’t do the full five miles every day or every allotted day, and that some days you don’t go to the gym at all and still feel okay about it, still feel happy about it. And I think there’s probably a broader message there in terms of what we’re trying to achieve. I think you’re right. There has to be a balance, isn’t there? Because I feel there is a need for me to develop a habit because it’s so easy for me to slip and lie in bed a little bit longer or whatever. It’s so easy not to do it or think of all sorts of reasons why I shouldn’t exercise. It’s important to make that habit, but it’s equally important that if I don’t do it, the failure to do it does not seem as some crushing defeat. I mean, it just has to be. I’ll all right. I’ll just be happy doing what I’m doing today instead.

Peter Bowes: And that probably also applies to the ultimate goal. And I often talk in terms of, of years, what the goal might be, whether it’s the average lifespan of about 78 years old in the Western world now, or 80 or 90 or 100 and what in terms of our mindset, we actually settle on as being okay, and is it becoming more stressful for us to think about? We can actually get onto this subject with the topic that we’re coming onto in terms of genes in a moment, but yeah, getting to 80, 90 or 100, it’s either going to happen or it isn’t going to happen. And I think my point is that let’s not stress about it too much in our 50s, 60s and 70s.

Peter Allison: Well, yes, because I mean, the whole point of it, it’s the journey rather than the destination, isn’t it really? Because if you get really stressed about getting to 80 and then just spend all your time stressing out, I’ve been a terrible person. Well, I shouldn’t say I’ve been a terrible person. I’ve been terrible for focusing on the destination rather than the journey. And there’s so many times you get so busy. And I think that’s where I think some of the negatives of perfectionism come that it stops me enjoying the journey because you’re so focused on the destination, and that can be such a waste, I think, and I think that implies to the whole thing of trying to get exercise to maintain health span as well is enjoy it. And if you’re not enjoying it, there’s a problem.

Peter Bowes: Yeah. And the returns can be negative pretty quickly. If you’re not enjoying it, that you give up, then there’s a mental effect of that feeling of failure. So I think you’re absolutely right in terms of the balance that we need to achieve these things.

Peter Allison: Well, I tried to walk 50 miles a week and I set out that was my target. I was going to try and walk 50 miles a week, and I walked 50 miles the first week. And then the second week as my legs started to feel really a bit sore and I and I and I sort of like lagged down a little bit. And I suppose my goal and this was prompted by that song, if I could walk 500 miles, I thought, can I walk 50 miles a week for ten weeks? So I am going to try and do walking 500 miles, but I’m going to have to try and see if my legs can improve here, because actually walking ten miles a day, five days a week. And on top of that, of course I’m going to the gym as well. So it’s also the time it takes because it just does take an awful lot of time. But yeah, so that comes into this conversation that we’re having about and being able to sit back and say, the perfectionist, well, I wanted to do that, but then I just have to sort of like say, well, maybe I have to scale that back a little bit and maybe try it again or not.

Peter Bowes: That’s not to say, of course, that the goals aren’t good for us. And like you, I have lists of things to achieve, and especially when it applies to exercise. And you can’t deny the positive impact of reaching a goal and sticking to the target and getting the whatever it is 50 miles a week, 100 miles a week, or a modest five miles a week if if that is in your capacity to achieve that, there is certainly an impetus to do more after you’ve reached the goal, which I think is is good and is to be encouraged for a lot of people. Let’s move on to this next story. This study about calorie restriction caught my eye a few days ago by the National Institutes of Health and published in Aging Cell. They looked into whether moderate calorie restriction can have a tangible benefit for well-being. And the key to this is a definition of moderate. The goal on this study over two years for the participants, was to reduce their daily caloric intake by 25%, which is quite a lot, but the highest the group was able to reach was 12%, but even that 12%. And the researchers call this a slight reduction in calories. That was enough to activate most of the biological pathways that are important for healthy aging. And I just did a quick calculation for your average man, maybe 2200 calories. That is a reduction of only 264 calories in a day. It isn’t a huge amount, and the outcome of this was that individuals on calorie restriction as part of this study, they lost muscle mass and an average of 20 pounds of weight over the first year. But they maintained their weight for the second year. But despite losing muscle mass, the calorie restriction participants didn’t lose muscle strength. So they lose muscle mass. But they don’t lose muscle strength, suggesting that calorie restriction improved the as they put it, the amount of force generated by each unit of muscle mass called muscle specific force. And so going right to the bottom of the page, the conclusion here is that a moderate amount of calorie restriction, seemingly only a couple of hundred calories a day, can have significant benefits.

Peter Allison: Yeah I know, yeah, I was fascinated by this. I mean, one of the things that fascinated me, following on from our previous discussion, was that there were people were trying to get a 24% calorie reduction, and 12% is what everybody achieved. So just following on from our conversation of perfectionism, I just thought, well, you know, that’s a that’s a case in point. Yeah. But yeah, I mean, and it was all of these it’s all of these markers. It switches on all of the right genes for longevity and healthspan just really great. I mean, I’ve tried some fasting diets before, and I think we’ve discussed this before. And when I’ve tried them, I’ve lost muscle mass, particularly upper body strength. And it sort of put me off a little bit. I think I was probably not doing it right. I was I’m sure I was doing something wrong, but this is I mean, but again, as you say, this is really interesting because they don’t lose muscle strength. It’s great.

Peter Bowes: It is great. And you’re right, we’ve discussed fasting regimes before and I’ve experimented with quite a number, some clearly much more extreme than this in terms of calorie Restriction over a restricted period of time, and one of the very noticeable effects is loss of of muscle mass. But interestingly, and these are very different regimes and it’s important, I think, not to confuse regimes. Intermittent fasting, periodic fasting where you just fast for a couple of days a week. But the one that I did was a fasting mimicking diet over a five day period, a very significantly reduced calorie intake, about 700 calories, at least on the final four of the five days. A little bit more on the first day. So much more significant than the 12% reduction here. And although I lost muscle mass during that time, during the refeeding process, as the scientists describe it, getting back to a normal diet on day six onwards I returned to normal, but very quickly surpassed my abilities in terms of strength compared with what I was when I started the five day regime. And I think that is essentially the renewal process, the building of new muscle cells within the body, as opposed to the muscle cells that you had previously, which might have been a little bit past their sell by date. You grow new muscle cells and you actually feeling physically better and physically stronger very quickly after the fast. I would say within 5 to 10 days I was actually performing much better post fast than pre fast. And I think there’s something of that in what has been identified in this study, that the reduction of calories is longer term, going to be beneficial for us.

Peter Allison: Yeah. I mean, what’s good is this is coming out for just such a small reduction in calories. I mean, it just causes me to pause a little bit and think about we ultimately, our distant ancestors were all hunter gatherers, and so we were all as hunter gatherers. You just programed to go away and gather and hunt and eat while you’ve got stuff and store fat up. And, you know, that’s been selected for for generation upon generations. And now here we are essentially, for most of us, we’re just surrounded by constant plenty. And so we’re just really just doing all of the things that evolution has selected for over thousands of years just by constantly eating almost 24 over seven, isn’t it really? It’s just easy just to open a cupboard and have a little snack. Yeah. So really we’ve just been programed to do that by all of our evolution. And now now it’s just not good for us.

Peter Bowes: Well yeah, I think it shows that the the feast, famine lifestyle, which is basically what you’re describing, the hunter gatherer food is plentiful during certain times and it isn’t at other times. A big part of that kind of lifestyle that is still very positive for us today. The problem with now is when you talk about being able to grab a snack, I think that is that is the problem. How easy it is to get some petrol and buy a snack, which is, you know what, many people will do that you’ve got a refrigerator, you work from home and you’re feeling a little stressed. You open the fridge door and there are lots of snacks to eat. It is too easy to snack. And all of this, of course, is promoted in advertising, TV advertising especially. There’s some really interesting. I’ll not dive too deeply into this right now. There’s some really interesting research about television, advertising of food and the processes that we go through, especially our brain when we’re watching television, suspenseful television drama, the way that the brain is working. Perhaps when it’s coming to a climax, it’s five to the hour and your program is finishing, and then there’s a commercial break reinforcing your need to have a snack. I mean.

Peter Allison: That’s that’s quite interesting because when I’ve tried to lose weight before and I, and I’ve tried to really get into become disciplined, what I do is I, I give in to my snacking, but I just try to snack on something that’s very low calorie. So eating raw carrots or other things, you know, similar, similar things. So yes, that’s where I would snack on. So yeah, I would just snack on things that’s not really going to cause any so much damage.

Peter Bowes: But I think again, bottom line of this, I think as you’ve identified the very positive message here, is the small number of calories you need to reduce your daily intake by to have some sort of tangible effect. So a couple of hundred calories. What is that? That’s a small bagel if that. Yeah. It’s not that difficult to eliminate that number of calories during the day.

Peter Allison: In the UK. That would be a jumbo bag of crisps.

Peter Bowes: There you go. There’s nothing positive in that bag of crisps either is there.

Peter Allison: No, I mean so just just what is your what is your, your guilty secret snack of choice then.

Peter Bowes: Cheese

Peter Allison: Cheese.

Peter Bowes: I love cheese and I think we all know that cheese is laden with fat, it is high calorie. I’m certainly not of the opinion that cheese is necessarily bad for you, but you don’t need to eat much cheese to be getting 500, 600 calories in a tiny little cube of cheese is about 100 calories. But that’s my little. That is my go to in a stressful moment. And you know, if you want to be really extravagant, it’s a nice, large, crusty brown bread sandwich with cheese and pickle. Delightful. Calorie laden.

Peter Allison: Oh, that’s very. That’s very Northern Peter. That is, isn’t it?

Peter Bowes: Yes.

Peter Allison: Cheese and pickle sandwich.

Peter Bowes: Still enjoy my cheese. So, what about you?  

Peter Allison: Well my current nibble of choice would be a handful of almonds. I just love almonds.

Peter Bowes: So my almond story is this. And I’ll keep it very, very brief. I was of the same opinion a few years ago. Almost ten years ago. In fact, California almonds delicious. Quite easy to get hold of and they were my go to snack, usually in the car and I really enjoyed them. Thought I was eating healthy food. It was providing me with some energy in the middle of the day. And then I got kidney stones. Nuts are full of oxalate and calcium oxalate kidney stones resulted from my feasting on nuts and especially almonds. And you don’t want to get kidney stones. It’s one of the most painful situations that you can. Now, I can’t 100% say it was because of the almonds, but at that time I was eating a lot of nuts in my diet. I used to make smoothies with spinach, which is also extremely high in oxalate and other leafy greens that are high in it as well. And I’m pretty certain that it was my supposedly healthy dietary regime at that time because I haven’t stopped eating all those foods, but I’ve reduced significantly and haven’t had a repeat of the kidney stones. It’s just a cautionary warning of. And it goes back to what we were talking about a couple of weeks ago about moderation in all things, everything. Not everyone is susceptible to kidney stones, but I think, you know, you don’t want to put yourself in that kind of situation where where that can happen. 

Peter Allison: No, not at all. Well, my other nibbles, bread my wife makes, she’s just going back into bread making and she makes really rather nice sourdough focaccias. And. Oh, that’s just fresh out the oven. It goes very, very, very, very quickly. It’s delicious.

Peter Bowes: You’re listening to the Live Long and Master Aging podcast. Peter Allison is with me, and we’re talking about this week’s new longevity science. Let’s move on. The secret to living to 100. This is a Wall Street Journal article just a few days ago. It’s not good habits. Good genes matter more the older you get. Habits like getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating a healthy diet can help you stave off disease and live longer, they say. Yet when it comes to living beyond 90, genetics start to play a trump card, according to the researchers. And the thing that really leapt out at me from this article was that they say about 25% of your ability to live to 90 is determined by genetics. This is the professor. Dr. Thomas Perls, professor of medicine at Boston University, leads a study, the New England Centenarian Study. But he says by the age of 100, it’s roughly 50% genetic, and by around 106, it’s 75% genetic. That is a big leap, isn’t it? From 25% at 90 to 75% at 106?

Peter Allison: So I think when I was reading this part of it, for me, instantly I start thinking about the longevity of my parents and my grandparents to think, what sort of genes have I got? And then I started thinking back about the lessons that I could learn from the perfectionism, the striving for perfectionism, in a way. And I think the lesson from that is to enjoy the journey rather than be focused too much on the destination. So in this case, maybe one of the one of the messages I could take from this is no matter how much exercise I do, if I haven’t got the right genes, I’m not going to be able to punch those levels. But maybe then the turnaround for that is to say no, I should be just enjoying my exercise, and I should enjoy the way it makes me feel for the rest of the day, because it does make me feel great for the rest of the day. There’s no two ways about it, so I should enjoy that. And I just take the genes as they come because I’ve got no control over them.

Peter Bowes: I agree with that. It. Did make me think, though, that essentially what they are saying is that up to the age of about 90, our lifestyle, diet, exercise regime, sleep regime has a quite significant impact on our ability to get to that age. And then they’re saying that after the age of approximately 90, genetics begins to take over, that you have that it’s often described as the longevity gene that you can just keep on going. And you hear these stories of 105 year olds who say that they love a glass of whiskey and a and a cigaret every day, and you think, well, why? And how can they get to that age? It seems that some people are just predisposed to get to a great age despite their lifestyle. But it does tell me that there is a lot we can do, clearly to get to that initial great age of 90, which is a fantastic age and perhaps reinforces my enthusiasm to keep at it. And then, yes, and then maybe just joking a little bit here live and let live after the age of, of 90 if you get there. Well, maybe that glass of whiskey and I would draw the line at cigarets, but a glass of whiskey and a. Yeah, a couple of almonds might be quite good fun. Yeah.

Peter Allison: Do you drink whiskey?

Peter Bowes: I do quite like whiskey. I drink and again, alcohol perhaps is another conversation for another day. But I drink very, very little alcohol these days because it just doesn’t it doesn’t like me. It makes you. Which is kind of frustrating. I like whiskey, I like red wine. The first drink is great. It’s usually just wondering if I do have a drink these days, but then after about 30 minutes, after about an hour, the headache starts. It’s it’s clearly not a hangover at that stage. You haven’t drunk that much alcohol, but it just dulls my senses and it’s the dulling of the senses. And especially the next morning when I still feel maybe only 75% that I really dislike.

Peter Allison: Yeah, I do too. To be perfectly honest, I, I don’t know how many bottles of wine I’ve got in the house 40, 50, and I think I’ve drank two bottles of wine in the last 3 to 4 months. I just don’t really touch it. And yet I’ve got loads of it and I and it’s because of the way I feel. I’m exactly the same as you. I just, I get the way I respond to it, it’s just getting worse and worse and worse. And so I just don’t like that feeling of being slow unless it’s a really nice occasion. You know, if my family around and stuff like that, then then maybe, but otherwise I don’t.

Peter Bowes: I agree with you. I so if on the few occasions that I do drink any alcohol these days, I try to make it fairly early in the day, after 6 or 7 in the evening probably isn’t going to be much fun for me. But if it’s a mid afternoon, if it’s a barbecue situation or even a lunch when the rest of the day doesn’t really matter, that is the time for me to have a quick glass of wine, a quick closing thought, Peter related to this story about genes and growing older. Just I just want to quote you something from the article, which I think is quite inspiring. Chuck Ullman, who is a 97 year old, lives in a retirement community in Thousand Oaks, very close to him in California. He says he’s free of health problems, aside from a sore right shoulder from a recent electric biking accident.

Peter Allison: Yes, I saw that. 

Peter Bowes: 97. He has no desire to live to a particular age reflects what you are saying. He hopes to live as long as he feels good and can do the things he loves, such as woodworking, attending political discussion groups and getting dinner with some of his many friends. I think that just sums it all up nicely, doesn’t it? Yeah.

Peter Allison: I mean, that was yes, that was in one of the papers that we were that we’ve read. One of the things that we’ve read today that we’re talking about the importance of having really good friendship groups, really good circles, and how that that’s very beneficial as well.

Peter Bowes: Yeah, I interviewed a lady. She she’s since passed away. She was 102 at the time and very healthy. Similar sort of attitude to this. She had a book club with some of her girls, her girls being her friends in their 90s. They used to read a book and then choose a restaurant, go to the restaurant and discuss the book. That was her life and the friendships she had. Often long term friendships within this group were what kept her going. She was physically okay as well, but it was the social side of just meeting people and having something to look forward to. I think that is one of the most crucial things about being very, very old and that is always having something tomorrow, next week, next month to look forward to.

Peter Allison: Yeah, I think there is something to be said for having lots of human interactions, because if you interact with lots of human beings, you have to realize that you have to moderate your own thoughts and your own behaviors. Because to be congenial, to be agreeable, you have to just say, well, you have to back off on some. Things and somehow or other, that sort of level of moderated balance in one’s own behavior and capacity to opinionate. That’s a story of moderation, isn’t it? In itself, learning to be moderate oneself, to be agreeable, to be able to get on with other people and allow other people to be right, and to let other you know and accept that perhaps you’re wrong at times. I mean, that’s a that’s a that’s also part of the story of moderation, isn’t it?

Peter Bowes: Yeah, it is. It is a theme we keep on coming back to.Peter enjoyed this conversation as ever. We will talk again very soon. Get that heating turned up.

Peter Allison: Yeah. Will do. All right. Take care. All right. Thank you. Same to you.

Peter Bowes: The LLAMA podcast is a Healthspan mMdia production. We’ll be back with another conversation very soon. In the meantime, thanks so much for listening.

Disclaimer: This podcast is for informational, educational and entertainment purposes only. We do not offer medical advice. If you have health concerns of any kind or you are considering adopting a new diet or exercise regime, you should first consult your doctor.

The Live Long and Master Aging (LLAMA) podcast, a HealthSpan Media LLC production, shares ideas but does not offer medical advice. If you have health concerns of any kind, or you are considering adopting a new diet or exercise regime, you should consult your doctor.

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