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Unraveling the mysteries of borrowed time
Sue Armstrong: Writer & broadcaster
The science of aging is rapidly evolving. Many of us are more aware of our capacity to live a long healthy life, than ever before. But the quest to understand human longevity – and perhaps figure out how we can slow down the process – is still a huge work-in-progress.
Why do we age? Is it due to wear and tear on our bodies, is it all predetermined by our genes – or is there an invisible killer all around us, such as toxins in the environment, that is slowly eating away at our lifespan? These and many other compelling questions about aging are explored in a fascinating new book: Borrowed Time: The Science of How and Why We Age, by Sue Armstrong.
In this episode of the Live long and Master Aging podcast, Sue, a writer and broadcaster based in Edinburgh, joins Peter Bowes to explore the latest research and the lessons to be learned from our growing understanding of what it means to grow old.
- Published: September 13, 2020 – 07:25 PT
- Recorded: August 20, 2020
NOTES & QUOTES
Connect with Sue Armstrong: Book: Borrowed Time: The Science of How and Why We Age | Twitter | LinkedIn
Photo credit: Alastair Burn-Murdoch
In this interview we cover:
- Delving into the massive canvas that is the enormous issue of aging, and why it parallels climate change in its importance for the future of mankind.
- Adding life to years rather than years to life, as the main goal.
- Why the medical profession is behind the curve on the process of aging.
“If you can learn to slow down the process, deal with some of the difficulties of getting older early on, then you’re hitting at the roots of these diseases and it’s going to make a huge difference.”
- Why the goal of living to over a thousand or even forever is overly “narcissistic.”
- Our genetically predetermined fate, and why plays a relatively small role in our actual lifespan.
- The centenarians that just keep on going and then die quickly
- The goal of compressed morbidity,
“Sometimes you just seem to fall off your perch and there’s no obvious pathology.”
- Peter’s meeting Roy Walford, one of the early proponents of a calorie restricted (CR) lifestyle for longevity.
- The mixed results from CR experiments involving monkeys.
- How society and marketing is pushing us into unhealthy lifestyles.
“High octane living probably does wear you out from the inside.”
- The scourge of diseases of the mind and the latest theories on what causes dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Ayurveda medicine and a holistic, whole body, approach to treating disease.
- Could air pollution account for a significant proportion of Alzheimer’s cases?
- What is inflamm-aging? Low grade inflation that could be accelerating the aging process.
- The lessons to be learned from longevity research. —
“I can’t bear being over-weight, I can’t bear not being able to move properly because I’m a greased lightning sort of person, so I move a lot”
- The relaxing, stress-reducing impact of yoga.
- The aging immune system, the dangers of sitting down for too long.
- The mindful practice of eating: Why mealtimes should be stress-free and peaceful.
(Automated transcription – check against audio)
Sue Armstrong : If you can learn to slow down the process, deal with some of the difficulties of getting older early on, then you’re hitting at the roots of these diseases and you’re going to it’s going to make a huge difference. And that’s what really appealed to me.
Peter Bowes: Hello again, and welcome to the Live Long and Master Aging podcast, we call it LLAMA for short. I’m Peter Bowes. This is where we explore the science and stories behind human longevity. Now, the science of longevity is rapidly evolving. Longevity is a burgeoning industry, for better or worse. And I think it’s fair to say that we’re more aware of our capacity to live a longer, healthier life than ever before. But the quest to understand aging and perhaps figure out how we can defy it or reverse it is still a huge work in progress. Why do we age? Is it simply wear and tear on our bodies? Is it all in our genes or is there an invisible killer all around us? Toxins in the environment that is slowly eating away at our lifespan? Compelling questions, which are explored in a fascinating new book, Borrowed Time The Science of How and Why We Age, by Sue Armstrong, who is a science writer and broadcaster based in Edinburgh in Scotland and joins me now. Sue, welcome to the Live Long and Master Aging podcast.
Sue Armstrong : Thank you very much, Peter, it’s great to be with you.
Peter Bowes: How is Scotland today, how is Edinburgh?
Sue Armstrong: It’s great. We’ve just been on holiday up in the Highlands and we had Mediterranean weather. So we were feeling very smug with our staycation when we didn’t have to quarantine, when we got home and everything. So it’s it’s great and it’s quite nice and warm here in Edinburgh today, too.
Peter Bowes: Quite nice and warm is what I am hankering after at the moment, being in Los Angeles where we’re in the middle of this western US heatwave with temperatures over 40 degrees celsius at the moment
Sue Armstrong: Oh
Peter Bowes: and not particularly pleasant.
Sue Armstrong : That’s a killer. No, today it was 20 degrees in Edinburgh, which was very, very nice.
Peter Bowes: Yeah, interesting. And actually, It throw up a thought in my mind which we might get to later about, I mentioned, toxin in the environment. We’re going through wildfire season here in California and the air is particularly bad at the moment, just thick with that layer of soot and smog and smoke and it’s not particularly healthy so we might tough on that. But let’s start by talking about you and your background first of all. And interestingly you and I have a similar, not exactly the same but similar background in that we’ve both worked for the BBC for the BBC and made programmes about longevity. I’m interested to know about how you first got interested in this subject area?
Sue Armstrong : Well, I got interested in it because I did a series of radio programs for BBC Radio four on the biology of a whole lot of different things. And I did one on the biology of addiction. The biology of stress and biology of aging was one of the ones I did. And I came to the States and came to the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Aging. And I found it very fascinating. And just before this book, I did one on cancer genes, cancer genetics. And Bloomsbury said to me afterwards, What would you like to do next? And so I cast around and I said, you know, I think aging is a very interesting topic. And at the time, it was a big topic because it was always in the media. But I don’t think I’d realised just what an enormous topic it was going to be. And I thought, well, I’ve done quite a lot of research. It’ll be quite a doddle to write. But my goodness, it’s a it’s a massive canvas, but absolutely fascinating. So I found it really interesting. And of course, it’s just an enormous issue nowadays. It really is. It’s one of the sort of somebody said somebody said it’s up there with climate change is one of the defining issues of our time. Very, very important. Has an effect on all aspects of society.
Peter Bowes: It is, and I think if we think big picture in terms of aging and health SP1, which I talk a lot about, as opposed to lifespan, the global implications of improving everyone’s health span, a very obvious just purely in financial terms, let alone health terms. But if if only that conundrum could be solved in terms of how we could maximize the number of years that we enjoy optimum health, the benefits to mankind would be enormous.
Sue Armstrong : Absolutely enormous. That’s it, because, you know, our life span has expanded enormously over just the last 50 years or so, it’s gone up to a sort of life. Life expectancy at birth for most people is around about 80 in the western world, in the developed world. But the statistics show that about 20 of those years can be lived with, you know, not good quality of life, either with dementia or with heart disease or frailty, all sorts of things. So you can have 20 years of pretty miserable life, which just isn’t what it’s all about. So the most important quest really is, as you say, to increase what to add years, life to years rather than years to life and increase the health span, which is. Yeah, that’s the goal.
Peter Bowes: Yeah, and I think what’s changing is that it isn’t any more inevitable that our final 10 or 20 years will be, as you describe it, isn’t inevitable that we will suffer those chronic diseases of old age. A lot of people still do. But the science has evolved to the point that we understand in large part how to stop some of those diseases before they kill us prematurely.
Sue Armstrong : That’s true, but, you know, the thing is, I think the medical profession is quite a way behind the curve because apparently somebody was telling me that aging is hardly touched upon in medical school. It’s considered such a natural part of life that they talk about the age related diseases, things like dementia and things like heart disease and cancer and diabetes and frailty. These are the diseases of old age that are recognized, and these are the diseases that most of the medical profession will treat and will recognize. But actually realizing that the process itself is very important. If you can if you can ease the process, if you can slow the process or ameliorate the process, then you’re going to get at the roots of the problem. And I think that hasn’t really you know, that really hasn’t sunk in in the medical profession to the degree that it should do.
Peter Bowes: Yeah, and the other interesting talking about medical school and what doctors are taught, the other thing that strikes me talking to a lot of medical professionals is those key issues that affect our health span, like nutrition and like exercise. They are barely taught in medical school either. I’ve lost count of the number of doctors who maybe with a more up to date view, will say, no, we maybe had 30 minutes of nutrition education during my four or five years at medical school. I think that’s changing, but it’s still got a long way to go.
Sue Armstrong : I think it is changing, but, you know, it’s interesting because if you look you can see a pattern in this. Public health has always been preventive medicine. Public health has always been the Cinderella, because if you get it right and people don’t get sick, they say, well, you know what? That was a storm in a teacup. They said this about SARS a long time ago because, you know, there was they hit on SARS very quickly when it first arrived and people were outraged. They said, I can’t remember which cities it was that were closed down, but it was amazing. The effect of it didn’t spread all around the world. We didn’t end up with a pandemic like we’ve got now. And people often said, you know, even with sort of bird flu. Oh, well, it never amounted to anything that was a storm in a teacup. But so so it’s difficult to prove that you’ve got it right when you do preventive medicine. And so I think it really most medicine is is focused on healing people who’ve got sick rather than preventing them getting sick. I think, as you say, it is beginning to change and it has to because the medical model of just treating diseases is terribly expensive and lots of people just don’t have access to it.
Peter Bowes: Yeah, exactly, and of course, what we’re going through at the moment with the covid-19 pandemic just focuses all of what you’ve just said even more intensely, the fact that our current health, our long term health has such a bearing on how we could possibly fight a future virus, leaving aside how we’re managing to cope with coronavirus covid-19. But it’s inevitable that there will be future pandemics. And if we focus on our health span for general well-being, it will prepare us all the more better in the way that we weren’t prepared for this virus.
Sue Armstrong : I think one of the fascinating things, one of the most fascinating things I learned when I was doing the book was that those diseases that we recognize as the diseases of old age, like heart disease and hardening arteries and frailty and dementias and things like that, they all have a common root, which is the aging process itself. This is the single biggest risk factor for all of those things. So in a way, it was very interesting because some people actually said to me, well, you know, aging is a disease. When I said, what is aging? And I realize I thought, oh, goodness, that the medicalising everything, like they medicalized childbirth in the old days and so on. So I resisted that. But then when it made sense, when they explained to me that the single biggest risk factor for all of those diseases is the aging process itself. So in a way, they’re the they’re the symptoms, the end point of a spectrum of what is a pretty debilitating condition in the first place. So if you can if you can learn to slow down the process, deal with some of the difficulties of getting older early on, then you’re hitting at the roots of these diseases and you’re going to it’s going to make a huge difference. And that’s what really appealed to me, the things that they can do if you focus on the aging process itself rather than waiting till people have got the real pathologies of old age.
Peter Bowes: So what do you do in your book is you beautifully dissect many of the theories about aging, why we age, what could possibly be done to reverse the process? I hate the expression antiaging because in my mind, I accept aging as a forward moving process that is absolutely inevitable. And anti aging seems to be attached with too many of those freak diets and creams and wrinkles and all those aspects of aging that honestly don’t bother me. But in terms of the medical research and the science, you look at the the different theories and you title your book, Borro Times. I really want to start there with with this idea of borrowed time. Where did that come from?
Sue Armstrong : It came from it was a quotation I stumbled across during my research, and what it referred to was the fact that a prehistoric man had a lifespan at birth of something like 35 years. That was what nature sort of designed us for. And we now, as I said, we now have a life expectancy at birth of around about 80 years. And many people are living 90, 100 and so on, many, many more of us. So all of those extra years, I reckon, are borrowed time. We’ve borrowed them from nature. So I thought this was a very nice title. And that’s that’s where I got it from.
Peter Bowes: So let’s talk about I mentioned the question marks over what is aging and why we age, and I think probably the most commonly health held idea is that it is purely wear and tear on our bodies, that we go through life, and that physically we deteriorate through perhaps overuse in terms of our muscles and our bones and our brain that eventually we just wear out. How much of a strong theory is that in terms of the overall picture? Let’s say there’s 100 percent of ideas to what extent is wear and tear responsible for our aging?
Sue Armstrong : Well, that’s a very interesting question, because for a long time, it makes such intuitive sense, and especially when you see people who’ve led very hard lives, you know, peasant farmers and people like that, people who live in the desert and things like that, it’s very obvious that they have been weathered by that, by the environment and so on. And so it makes intuitive sense that wear and tear would be part of the picture. And undoubtedly it has an effect, a sort of superficial effect on us. But it is it isn’t the picture. And what’s fascinating is at the beginning, I mean, it was a theory for a very long time that was the governing theory. But what they realized was that they were looking at free radicals, which are the molecules which are generated by metabolism and they’re terribly toxic and they’re in our bodies all the time. But we have very good protective mechanisms against them and ways of clearing them out of our bodies and so on. So we have ways of dealing with these things. And as you get older, these tend to wear out. But what they found was to test this theory that it was wear and tear. They bred mice with the genes, which are code for the the anti free radicals, the things which should clear up the free radicals, either protect us from them or clear them away. And they and they bred mice where they were upgraded and mice which didn’t have any of these things.
Sue Armstrong : And they found it made not a peak of difference either. The ones who cleared them very, very well and were not affected by these free radicals, the elements which were supposed to be harming us from the inside. It didn’t. It certainly made a difference to them, but it didn’t alter their lifespan at all. And they found the same with the one with the ones which had which didn’t have mechanisms to clear them up at all. So, you know, this dealt a real blow to that theory. And there are all kinds of other theories. But I think the one which is probably most agreed upon is one called the disposable sohmer theory, which is a horrible mouthful. What it really means, to put it bluntly, it means built in obsolescence. And the theory goes that animals, organisms which live in the natural world with all its hazards, the most important thing is that it lives long enough to that. The biological imperative is that it survives long enough to reproduce and to see that its offspring are launched into the into the world thereafter. It doesn’t really matter. And for complex bodies like ours, building them and maintaining them is terribly heavy on resources. So nature, it makes sense for nature to invest very heavily in maintaining the germ cells, which are the sperm and the egg which carry the genes down the generations, and to invest just enough in our bodies that are the vehicles for our germ cells and our genes, just long enough for us to make sure that we can reproduce and launch the next generation into the world.
Sue Armstrong : After that, our bodies, the maintenance systems tend to wear out a little bit and our bodies fail for want of all sorts of things. Sometimes it’s a bit of wear and tear, but it could be all sorts of other things. And one of the people you spoke to in your programs, a very interesting geneticist, came up with a theory that it’s not a failure of its failure of maintenance, but it’s not a failure. It’s not things breaking down. It might be that the genes which were designed to develop our bodies and to maintain them until we reach maturity, just don’t know when to stop. And post reproduction does nothing. Evolution doesn’t have much of a natural selection, doesn’t have much clout at that stage. So these genes just run on and on and on. And it might be overexpression of these genes. So you get things like cancer and you get things like hardening of the arteries where we get too much calcium laying down on the walls of the arteries. Calcium, which would have been very useful when we were young to build our bones and maintain them and so on. So it could be overexpression over abundance rather than hyper function rather than failure. So there’s all kinds of very interesting theories. But I think the built in obsolescence is the one that is most agreed upon at the moment.
Peter Bowes: And of course, once you’ve got a theory that many people seem to agree on, that seems to make a lot of sense. You come across the exceptions to the rule. And, of course, there are some people that live for a very, very long time that are the super centenarians who seem to just to keep on going, might get to 100, 150, 110, and then very often die very quickly, seemingly just of old age, have actually nothing that physically wrong with them. They just come to the end of their time.
Sue Armstrong : Yes, well, there was one fascinating story in my book exactly that sometimes you just seem to fall off your perch and there’s no obvious pathology. But one person was they she lived for a very, very long time. I can’t remember. It was well over 100. She was in the Netherlands and people were fascinated by her. So she agreed to leave her body to science and she’d they’d taken lots of sort of blood samples and so on. And what they discovered, the only thing they could discover that had made her fall off her perch was that she’d literally run out of raw materials of maintenance. She’d got something like one stem cell left, one blood stem cell left. And so it looked as though she just hadn’t anything else to sort of maintain her body with which I found a fascinating idea. I don’t think that’s a very common way of dying. But, you know, she reached very venerable old ages.
Peter Bowes: As interesting that I suppose what a lot of us are aspiring to is that kind of compressed morbidity, as it’s often described, in other words, a very short period of time that between living a healthy, involved, vital life, two to dying, and that a very short space of time when you might suffer some ill health. That, I suppose, is what you know if we all think about our own death, how we’d like to go very quickly after generally having a pretty good time with our families, with our friends, our diet, still being able to exercise and then go quickly. That seems. Did you get this from the people you spoke to, the scientists at the forefront of the research? That is the goal, isn’t it, to
Sue Armstrong : Absolutely,
Peter Bowes: Compress that period of time?
Sue Armstrong : Absolutely. I mean, that that was the most important goal of most people, but I did find and this is where gerontology tends to get sort of tainted with the snake oil thing, I did find some very, very impressive scientists whose goal was not just living healthy lives. Health was important, of course, but they were really intent upon living to a thousand years, 500 years, a thousand years and even beating death itself. And I found that that really put me off because I found that I felt that was very narcissistic. And there’s so many other aspects to that. The ramifications for the population and and family life, all sorts of things, jobs and all sorts of things. So I wasn’t interested in that, in that kind of thing. But I found that most of the gerontologists I spoke to were really their goal was a health span really increasing it so that you maybe just had ill health, if if at all, just towards the end of your life. You didn’t have this 20 years getting frailer and frail and losing your mind, losing everything else, which is very distressing really to watch, because I’ve seen it in my own family and so on.
Peter Bowes: Yeah, and me, too, and I think as we all get older, we see more of that in our own families and our friends as well. And of course, Alzheimer’s is the great scourge of society at the moment in terms of medical problems that are factors in later life. Well, let’s get to that in a second. The other thing I wanted to talk to you about is the expression you often hear from people, of course, is that it’s simply all in our genes. It’s all predetermined if you’ve got elderly parents or elderly grandparents, that there’s a very good chance you are going to go that way as well. But from my research and from my talking to experts, the genetic factor is quite a low percentage in terms of determining how old we’re going to get.
Sue Armstrong : Absolutely, but it’s a very interesting picture because when the geneticists working on model organisms like, you know, the little worm C. elegans and fruit flies and that sort of thing, they have been tinkering around with individual genes and they have had phenomenal results. They’ve managed to increase the lifespan of little worms by 10, 10 fold. And but and they found an individual gene that was able to do this, which they named age one, which I think was a very, very appropriate. And we do have homologation in our bodies as well. But it’s not as simple as that. You could never do genetic manipulation of us to that extent. And people have been looking at the gene so far, lots and lots of different genes which have some sort of bearing on our lifespan. And there’s no doubt that our genetic inheritance from our families, you do get long-lived families, which does seem to be something in the genes. They don’t know which genes yet are responsible for that, but it does seem to have some bearing and certainly it has some bearing on the diseases like Alzheimer’s and that sort of thing. But certainly the idea that it’s all in the genes, that there is some genetic program which says you will get old, you will have a death gene, something which runs us down, that’s not so at all as far as I can see. You know, science can always be proven and disproven, but all the evidence is that there is no such thing as a genetic program for for getting old and getting frail or for dying. But what they reckon is that your genetic inheritance probably plays 20 to 30 percent, accounts for about 20 to 30 percent of your lifespan. And the rest is sort of environmental.
Peter Bowes: I sometimes think that maybe some people put too much emphasis on what they believe to be they’re genetically predisposed composition to live a longer or shorter life and almost use it as an excuse to ignore the the guidelines and the advice about exercise and diet. Look, I’m going to live and let live. It’s going to happen anyway. I’m going to die young. I’m going to live a long time no matter what I do, because my grandma got to 100 years old and she smoked till she was 95.
Sue Armstrong : Yeah, and actually, you get the obverse of that is people who say, oh dear, my father died of a heart attack at 53 and they come up for their fifty third birthday or something and they’re quivering on their seat thinking it’s going to happen to me. I’ve always found that really strange of any sort of sense of predestiny. I mean, it doesn’t sit with me that but it is interesting. People do do feel that. But you know, the evidence isn’t that that’s very important. Lifestyle is mostly what it’s all about.
Peter Bowes: Yeah, it is, and that brings me onto the chapter that really piqued my interest, because as any listen to this podcast will know, I’ve been involved in some experimentation, some clinical trials, looking into a fasting diet. And that whole idea of eating less and living longer really does fascinate me.
Sue Armstrong : Did you try it yourself?
Peter Bowes: So I’ve tried lots of different regimes, I was Valter Longo is a scientist at USC who have interviewed a couple of times on this podcast. I’m sure you’re well aware of his work and he has created a fasting mimicking diet. So it’s essentially you’re still eating some food. It’s low calorie, 700 calories a day for day two to five, about 100 calories on day one. It’s a very low protein diet and it is designed to put you in a fasting state without the inconvenience and perhaps the discomfort of not eating for several days in a row, because I think the benefits of fasting, per say, have generally been shown to be pretty positive for us. But the problem is, as I think Valter Longo sees it, is persuading people en masse to adopt that kind of lifestyle. It’s very difficult to persuade people not to eat anything to ultimately reap the rewards. So what I did was I was involved in the first human trial, looking at this fasting, mimicking diet and trials are continuing to this day to see what sort of effect it has on you. And the effects are, yes, you lose a bit of weight.
Peter Bowes: It’s not designed as a permanent diet. It’s a periodic fast. So you might do it three or four times a year only. So if you think of that, you’re only on inverted commas, a diet for five days out of maybe every three or four months. And so you lose a little bit of weight, but it’s what you can’t see that is perhaps more interested in terms of your longevity. Your IGF one level’s come down significantly, and there’s been shown to be quite a close correlation between high IGF one levels and developing cancer, for example, IGF one being a growth hormone. The science is fascinating. It is still ongoing. I’m also probably more regularly doing a six eight regime where I’m fasting overnight for a long night of not eating and then eating during an eight hour special during the day, which I find is quite beneficial as well. And I’m sure these are the kind of regimes that you heard about during your research. And you write about Roy Walford, who of course is one of the first characters, and he really was a character I met him in.
Sue Armstrong : Yes, I know you did, because I quoted you in my book or you
Peter Bowes: Yes, thank you for doing that.
Sue Armstrong : You had interviewed him. And I would love to have met him, he’s such a character he reckoned that you needed to have you know, life would be very dull to spend it all in the lab. Even if the research you were doing was fascinating. You need to break it up with some what did he say? Risky and risky and exciting periods out from the lab. And he did all sorts of things. He was a fascinating guy, wasn’t he?
Peter Bowes: Totally fascinating, and he lived the life and he really, as he grew older, as he understood more about the science, he much more rigorously applied what he was saying to himself. And he existed on a a pretty low calorie diet. And he was very thin. He was verging on being a little eccentric, but he passionately
Sue Armstrong : Absolutely.
Peter Bowes: Believed in this idea of calorie restriction to live a longer life. Sadly, he didn’t live that long
Sue Armstrong : Terribly, terribly sad.
Peter Bowes: He died of Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Sue Armstrong : Yes, very sad, but I thought one of the fascinating things I thought was that he was the medical officer in the Biosphere two experiment, wasn’t he? Which was that thing, the sort of human terrarium set up on the in the Arizona desert to test what it would be like to live on some outer planet and whether whether you could set up whole life systems up there. And I think there were how many people, eight or 14 people or something. And
Peter Bowes: Something like that.
Sue Armstrong : The experiment didn’t work because it was supposed to be a closed system where you manufactured your own recycled your own air and your own water and grew your own food and so on. And I think they run very short of food and they run very short of oxygen, too. So they had to break the spell. But he apparently imposed a very stringent diet on the people in the in the Biosphere two. And what was fascinating afterwards was he did all these measurements on them and he found they all lost a lot of weight and they got quite grouchy, I think quite a lot of them, because they hadn’t intended to starve themselves like that. But what fascinated him was he tested all sorts of things like their cholesterol levels and their way of dealing with sugars and their blood pressures and all sorts of things, all kinds of parameters were really good. And he said none of them got sick. So I think that was pretty good. But I think what’s interesting was I’ve interviewed a number of people who for my book who have joined this regime, what do they call it, calorie restriction. Crone is calorie restriction on optimal nutrition. An
Peter Bowes: That’s it.
Sue Armstrong : I interviewed a wonderful another eccentric guy who’s on this regime, and he was quite strict, too. But apparently one of the things was they were they were looking at the effects on mice and all these other organisms, rats and mice and flies and fruit flies and yeast, everything. The lifespan was quite significantly expanded. So this was what my interviewees were after. But they’d also done a test. They were testing it on macaque monkeys to see whether it had an effect on their longevity. And of course, because they tend to live to 30 or 40 years, it took a very long time for them to get results. And I think the results came in very recently. And the bad news was that it made not a peak of difference to their lifespan, that they didn’t live any longer. But the good news was that it had a really significant effect on their health. They remained really healthy right up until, you know, they lived very they lived to the full length of time and then they just dropped off their perch. And one of my interviewees actually said that if you put mice on the restricted on the restricted diet, again, they stayed really young looking and so on for the full lifespan of a mouse. And they did this thing. They just dropped off their perch. And they remember Linda Partridge saying to me that you couldn’t tell what these mice had died of until you really did a post-mortem on them. So the message is that your diet has an enormous effect on your health. You know, one of the most important ones is avoiding obesity and so on. But a good diet is massively important in in ageing. Well, that’s that’s the message. And and not overburdening your system. That was that was the other message, not giving your system too much to have to clear out of junk food and things.
Peter Bowes: Yeah, exactly, and that’s exactly the message that I get from the people that I’m interviewing on this subject as well. And I think looking again at the bigger picture, when you talk about diet, I think it is increasingly accepted that if you just eat a little less or maybe in some people’s cases a lot less, you’re going to be a lot healthier. There are so many things working against you in society these days because we are let’s just take covid aside. In normal times, food is thrown at us, advertising, on television, on billboards, in cinemas. Our lifestyle revolves around food and a lot of it. And I live in America and I’m well aware of that, that the bigger your plate, the restaurant feels as if it’s it’s giving you a good deal. And that society and clearly this financial side as a marketing side to this as well. But society is against you when it comes to eating a good diet.
Sue Armstrong : Yes, you’re absolutely right. I mean, I did I did some programs a little while back on some of the impulses to eat the food that’s in front of us. And it’s almost irresistible, the stuff which is thrown at us. You know, you go into a shop to get coffee and there’s these absolutely wonderful cream cakes. And so you have to be super disciplined to say this is going to harm me, that just, you know, I shouldn’t have it. And of course, the other thing is that the refined foods, all the stuff which is, you know, the labor saving devices, the foods that you can get and you just shove in the microwave tastes delicious. And you look at the ingredients and there’s so many things which are really, really bad for you. And to a certain extent, a lot of people have lost the art of cooking from scratch with with natural ingredients and so on. So there’s a lot against us. It’s not just people being ill disciplined. Society and marketing and all sorts of things is pushing us into unhealthy lifestyles.
Peter Bowes: And you say you talk about going for a coffee and trying to resist the pastry along with the coffee, even just the coffee of course, now we live in a wolrd where it’s the norm to stop by and pick up a coffee which can be several hundred calories, depending on the kind of milk that it’s made. With that in itself, if you’re doing it every day,
Sue Armstrong: Do you want chocolate sprinkled on the top, of courseI want…
Peter Bowes: Exactly. Yeah, I know.
Let’s talk about Alzheimer’s, because we mentioned it a little earlier and we are acutely aware of the degenerative nature of Alzheimer’s and diseases of old age, more generally, how they affect the mind dementia, of course, and how how awful it is for a family to have to to go through that. And I feel as if I hear more and more stories these days about people suffering from Alzheimer’s and that that long goodbye. That that was I think it was Ronald Reagan who first used that phrase that so many families have to get used to. From your research, how close are we, do you think, to figuring out Alzheimer’s and getting over this
Sue Armstrong : You know, it’s a terrible, sad thing to say, but this was one of the most fascinating but depressing aspects of looking of doing the book that I interviewed quite a lot of people about that. And the mind remains one of the last great frontiers that they’re learning a huge amount, but they haven’t cracked it. And for a very long time, there was a theory called the Amyloid Cascade Hypothesis, which looked at the pathology of Alzheimer’s, which is your brain clogged up with this amyloid plaques and tangles. You’ve got all kinds of mess in your brain. And for a long time it looked as though these were the things which were killing off nerve cells and so on. And that was the cause of it. Well, it turns out that that seems to be that seems to hold true for just about one or two percent of Alzheimer’s cases, which are the familial Alzheimer’s, which are caused by a mutant gene, which is a mutant gene in the amyloid protein. And that that seems to work. But then for for the rest, which is sporadic Alzheimer’s, that doesn’t seem to be the case. A lot of these people don’t have a mutant gene. The they still have the same pathology in their brains with these plaques and tangles clogging up the brain. But they’ve developed all kinds of drugs to clear the amyloid or to prevent it happening and so on and to clear the target protein.
Sue Armstrong : And they haven’t worked. So people sort of scratch their heads and thought, well, what’s this all about? So the amyloid cascade hypothesis has been under massive challenge and there are people looking at other genes that might be involved and there’s a whole slew of other genes. One of them that seems to be really quite important is one called APB for an APB is again, an amyloid protein, one which produces a protein that is supposed to help distribute the fats around the body and so on. That’s its natural job. And it seems to get clogged up in the brain, in people with Alzheimer’s. But again, they don’t know whether this is just that. There are some people who reckon that this isn’t what’s killing the cells. They reckon this is something that’s a response to what’s killing the cells. It’s a protective mechanism. So there’s still a lot of theories about what’s actually causing the dementia, though. They know what a brain with Alzheimer’s looks like. And so they’ve got they haven’t got very far with how to deal with it. But then I interviewed one fascinating guy, a neuroscientist from the States who was who is one of the founding members of the Buck Institute on Aging, which is a really big and famous institute in the States doing research on aging.
Sue Armstrong : And he was very important, but he got interested in medicine, sort of Indian form of medicine, and started to investigate other ways of dealing with Alzheimer’s, looking at the body holistically and not just focusing on those pathologies and thinking it might be an imbalance in all kinds of things. And so he started trying to treat it that way. And he’s had some absolutely remarkable success. But it was so counter to the dogma of the day that he said suddenly he found his research funding was drying up. And a lot of his colleagues were sort of saying, you know, you’ve gone wacky and that sort of thing. And so he just got on with his own business doing it. But I was impressed with his with his results. And so I’ve written a whole chapter on Dale Bredesen. He was really fascinating. And I met I met another guy who was an Indian neuroscientist and a very, very good neuroscientist. And he’s also very schooled in the Iowa side of things as well, the Indian tradition. And he has a lot of time for these things. So I reckon, you know, there are some interesting things on the horizon. But and yeah. And there’s some interesting new theories on what might be damaging the brain. But we certainly are not a couple of years away from having an answer.
Peter Bowes: It’s interesting, it kind of comes back to what you were saying about covid-19 and being generally healthy as a way of perhaps helping ourselves to stave off the the virus if we are infected. It is this idea of treating which we hear more and more about these days, of treating the whole body, the holistic approach and not focusing in on the individual disease that we are one being, if you like.
Sue Armstrong : Absolutely. One person, I’ll try and remember how he said this, because it was very neat, one person who really poured cold water on the amyloids cascade hypothesis, which was just looking at saying that amyloid and the plaques and tangles in the brain were the cause of Alzheimer’s. He said, no, these are like tombstones in the graveyard. He said, you get the mark where a death has occurred. But nobody would say that the tombstones or what killed the body there. And he said it’s other things that are affecting the brain. And these are results of the brain dying rather than the causes of the brain dying. I mean, he was this was a guy called Allen Roses, and he was quite a he liked stirring things up and causing a bit of controversy. But I think he did. And I think, you know, other people came with other ideas. And certainly one of the ideas is that pollutants in the air are very important and they do manage to get into our brains, pass the blood brain barrier up our noses and so on. And there’s one very famous guy, Tuck Finch, in the States who reckons that air pollution could account for about 50 percent of Alzheimer’s cases. And he’s got some fabulous research results which, you know, back this up, some experiments which back this up, looking at dogs which live in very highly polluted cities and so on. And their owners are saying they’ve got some strange, strange things happen to them. And they’ve looked at human beings who live in very polluted, polluted places and looking at the incidence and the prevalence of degenerative brain degeneration. And so so there’s some convincing evidence that there’s a lot of things that that might be causing it and which might be accounting for, as you say, us experiencing so many more people. It just seems so common. It seems almost that we’re not going to be able to avoid it, which is a really scary prospect, isn’t it?
Peter Bowes: Yeah, it is a scary prospect, and you’re right, it just does seem as if the instances are becoming more and more common, as if there is something in is to use that phrase, as if there is something in the air that is affecting us, which is kind of worrying.
Sue Armstrong : Absolutely. Well, I think I think it I think it quite possibly is, you know, we’ve always known that pollution was bad for the lungs and all that sort of thing. But I think they’re homing in on some of the things it does to the brain. It certainly seems to inflame the brain and to get back to the whole thing about what causes aging. One of the biggest causes of aging, they reckon, is one of the things is inflammation, low-grade, inflammation in the body, the excitation of the immune system the whole time. And they think this is so important that some people have actually called it inflammation. And it’s not something you are even aware of most of the time because it’s you know, it doesn’t give us a temperature and it’s not it doesn’t cause muscle pain or anything like that. It’s just low grade inflammation. And there’s a lot of things cause that low grade inflammation.
Peter Bowes: So I think we’ve probably in the last half an hour or so illustrated why this is such a fascinating subject, that there are so many different ways to go at it and identifying and dissecting some of the traditional theories, but looking at the the very new science as well. So I’m curious, having done this research, having waded through the vast volumes of of science that’s available to us, is there something with your own longevity, your own aging process in mind? Is this something that you apply to your own life, perhaps now that you’ve learned over the last few years, having been deep into this research, that you think is actually benefiting you?
Sue Armstrong : Yeah, I do, I’m very, very, very aware of of exercise, very aware of of diet, and yes, I’m very aware of all of these things also from the point of view of of the brain and looking speaking to these people who are interested in Indian style medicine over medicine. And so one of the things they talk about is, is stress and keeping your stress levels down, because, again, stress is one of the things that is a real stimulator of inflammation, this low grade inflammation. And so I I’ve taken that very recently and I really got going since covid came along with yoga. And, you know, I’ve always been rather stiff. I walk a hell of a lot, but I’ve always had sort of stiff bones and so on. So I didn’t think I could ever do yoga. But it’s wonderful. And the nice thing is, if you’re following a yoga teacher, you’re not thinking about what am I you know, what am I going to write? What article am I going to write today? What’s my next chapter of my book? What am I going to cook for supper tonight? When am I going to see my kids? None of that. You’re just focused on your breathing and, you know, putting your legs in funny positions and all sorts of things like that. So I. I think that’s made a big difference. The meditative aspect of that. I try to do meditation and I did it for a long time and then started to fall asleep.
Sue Armstrong : And I’ve it’s lapsed, but I know it was good for me and I do. I am very careful with my eating habits. I always have been because I can’t bear being I can’t bear being overweight. I can’t bear not being able to move properly because I’m a sort of greased lightning type of person. So I move a lot. The other thing one one very interesting thing is I interviewed a person who was looking at the aging immune system, and it’s very, very interesting because your immune system really does, you know, get older and you can keep it young if you do quite, quite stiff exercise. But one of the things is that apparently the woman who was doing all this research, she said sitting down is really bad for you for a long time, for long periods of time. So she and apparently you can improve your your immune system and you can counter this this low grade inflammation by simply standing. You just need to put weight bearing on your muscles. And so I know I haven’t got a standing desk because I haven’t invested in one. But the person I interviewed said that she and all of her lab now have standing desks. And I think that’s a very good thing. But I do get up within every hour. I get up and I nip upstairs. I make myself another cup of coffee. I try and avoid a biscuit with it. And so, yes, I do little things like that.
Peter Bowes: Oh, fascinating. And you’ve just hit on so many topics that, as you were saying, I thought I must delve into that, that that I actually also apply to my own life. I do have a standing desk and have had for some time, and I find it to be hugely beneficial. I don’t. And like you, I’m a very active person and I believe strongly in a lot of exercise. And I just seize up if I’m sitting a long time and we’re both journalists who are both writers. So
Sue Armstrong : Yes.
Peter Bowes: We by its very nature, we have to be stationary for long periods of times just to get the work done. But I do find the standing desk extremely useful. Very coincidentally, I was talking to someone last night about meditation, were planning an episode in a few weeks time, because I do agree with you that there is a key pillar of longevity. If you see, I would see three pillars. One is diet, one is exercise, and one is the matters of the mind. It is mindfulness. It is. It is whether you want to do yoga or meditation or have a massage every month or whatever to relax.
Sue Armstrong : Massively important.
Peter Bowes: Because of the inflammation, because of the stress and the implications of that. And I think of of those three pillars, diet, exercise and mindfulness is the one that is most often ignored because people don’t think there’s much science behind it, which actually isn’t the case.
Sue Armstrong : There is a huge amount of science behind it now, too, and I think one of the interesting things was the Indian guy they interviewed, Ram Rao at the Buck Institute. Fascinating guy, because I actually one of the programs I did some years back for the BBC was absolutely lovely. It was looking at it was called Ask Me, Ask the Experts. And I was looking at Western science or modern science and ancient systems. So I looked at climate change with with India, it up in northern Canada and with a climatologist. And I looked at something with the Bushmen, you know, a dietary aide with the Bushmen in the Kalahari. But one of the interesting ones was I went to a hospital in northern India, which was run by a doctor who had trained in both systems of medicine. And it was deeply fascinating. I thought at first when I got there, I was hugely resistant. I thought this was really, you know, hippy sort of stuff. And then I thought after, well, just let your guard down and look what’s happening. It was so impressive. And they they were doing a lot of things with with with meditation and so on.
Sue Armstrong : But anyway, so when I went to see Rahm, he was he he was keen on telling me about the iveta aspects of things. And one of the things he said was that you should never eat, you shouldn’t have meetings with, you know, sandwiches at the meetings or sit at your desk and eat. He said eating should be another mindful thing because he said the condition of the stomach is so important. And the more stress you have while you’re eating, the more you’re likely to make it start having leaky guts and all sorts of things. And these are really bad things for encouraging inflammation. So he always takes his lunch and he goes out into the grounds at the Buck Institute. I mean, he was a lovely example of somebody who was a really fiery mind, a brilliant guy to talk to, but who had this lovely sense of sort of Eastern peacefulness around him. And I really enjoyed hearing both sides of the story so that those things I’ve really taken on board.
Peter Bowes: It’s interesting, isn’t it, how it sometimes just comes down to the very simple things and the very simple changes, like sitting under a tree and enjoying your lunch in a moment of silence, how those little things can make such a big difference.
Sue Armstrong : Absolutely, I that’s that that’s the message that I got that high octane living probably does where you are from the inside.
Peter Bowes: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. Final question, as I think we’ve probably already tackled this in a sense, we probably both agree about Hellespont versus lifespan and the reasons to grow old and which might seem obvious. But in terms of your enthusiasm for reaching a good health SP1 and remaining vital and remaining involved, what is your main motivation for that? In other words, maybe what is it that you enjoy about life that you want to keep enjoying until your very old?
Sue Armstrong : And I just enjoy life, I hugely enjoy life, I I’m very curious, I love to read. I love to. But I’ve often thought if I did become infirm, I would I would like to still have quality and I feel it wouldn’t because I really enjoy getting out and doing stuff. I mean, we’ve just been on holiday cycling up in the Highlands and things like that, which was just wonderful. I love to see my family and watch my grandchildren growing up and things like that. I think I’ve still there’s still a lot that I thoroughly enjoy. But on the other hand, this is this is the down side of it. I’m so distressed that quite a lot of the things going on in the world at the moment that I find myself thinking, thank goodness, are not young, which is a terrible thing to think. But, you know, I, I, I’ve lived at a time when I travelled in all around the world and seen the most amazing things. I saw the Arctic before the ice started to melt. I saw Africa before too many of the animals disappeared. And I heard the dawn chorus when it was still very, very vibrant. And I mourn the loss of those things. And I suppose that’s a bit negative. I should actually think, well, there’s still so much that is worth living for and there certainly is. But I just want to stay healthy. I want to stay independent. That’s one of the most important things. My independence is massively important. So those are my goals to go on being independent and bringing the best out of life.
Peter Bowes: I think that’s a very good aspiration, Sue, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. Thank you very much indeed.
Sue Armstrong : Well, thank you, Peter, it’s been great.
Peter Bowes: Yeah, really enjoyed it. The book is out right now in paperback, Borrowed Time The Science of How and Why We Age. I’ll put the details into the show notes for this episode and you’ll find them at the website Live Long and Most Aging – LLAMA.com. And if you enjoy what we do, you can rate and reviewers at Apple podcasts. You can follow us in social media at LLAMA podcast and you can direct message me at Peter Bowes. Many thanks for listening.
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