To live beyond 100, Eat Much Less: An Italian Expert's Ideas on Aging

Most of the band members adhered to a young-live-fast lifestyle. But as they partook in the drinking and drug use endemic to the '90s grunge scene after shows at the Whiskey a Go Go, the Roxy and other West Coast clubs, the band's guitarist, Valter Longo, a Ph.D. Italian research obsessed with nutrition. student, struggled with a lifelong addiction to longevity.

Now, decades after Dr. Longo abandoned his grunge-era band DOT for a career in biochemistry, the Italian professor finds himself with his floppy rocker hair and lab coat at the nexus of food obsessions and the aging of Italians.

“For studying aging, Italy is simply incredible,” said Dr. Longo, a young 56-year-old, in the laboratory he runs at an oncology institute in Milan, where he will speak at a conference on aging at the end of this month. Italy has one of the oldest populations in the world, including numerous pockets of centenarians who tantalize researchers searching for the fountain of youth. “It's nirvana.”

Dr. Longo, who is also a professor of gerontology and director of the USC Longevity Institute in California, has long advocated for a longer, better life by eating Lite Italian, one of the examples of the global explosion of Road to Perpetual Wellville theories on how to stay young in a field that is itself still in its adolescence.

In addition to identifying genes that regulate aging, he created a plant- and nut-based diet with supplements and kale crackers that mimics fasting and, he claims, allows cells to shed harmful baggage and rejuvenate, without the downside to die of hunger. She patented and sold her ProLon diet kits; you have published best-selling books (“The Longevity Diet”); and has been called an influential “fasting evangelist” by Time magazine.

Last month, he published a new study based on clinical trials in hundreds of older people – including in the Calabrian town where his family is from – that he said suggests that periodic cycles of his mock-fasting approach could reduce the biological age and avoid age-related diseases.

His private foundation, also based in Milan, tailors diets for cancer patients, but also provides consultancy for Italian companies and schools, promoting a Mediterranean diet that is actually foreign to most Italians today.

“Almost no one in Italy follows the Mediterranean diet,” said Dr. Longo, who has an easy-going Californian manner and an Italian accent. He added that many Italian children, especially in the south of the country, are obese, bloated due to what he calls the five poisonous Ps: pizza, pasta, proteins, potatoes and bread (or bread).

Recently at the foundation, resident nutritionist Dr. Romina Cervigni sat among photos on the wall showing Dr. Longo playing guitar with centenarians and shelves of his longevity diet books, translated into many languages ​​and filled with recipes.

“It's very similar to the original Mediterranean diet, not the current one,” he said, pointing to photographs hanging on the wall of a bowl of ancient chickpea-like legumes and a pod of Calabrian green beans enjoyed by Dr. Longo. “His favorite.”

Dr. Longo, who has divided his time between California and Italy for the past decade, once occupied a niche field. But in recent years, Silicon Valley billionaires hoping to stay forever young have been funding secret labs. Wellness articles have taken over newspaper home pages, and ads for workouts and diets from The Fountain of Youth featuring insanely fit middle-aged people are teeming on the social media feeds of not-insanely fit middle-aged people.

But even for concepts like longevity, intermittent fasting and biological age, you are only as old as your cells feel! – have gained momentum, governments like Italy are concerned about a more uncertain future in which the growing elderly population drains resources from the dwindling youth.

Yet many scientists, nutritionists and longevity fanatics around the world continue to gaze longingly at Italy, searching its deep pockets of centenarians for a secret ingredient for long life.

They probably continued to breed among cousins ​​and relatives“,” Dr. Longo offered, referring to the sometimes close relationships in Italy's small hill towns. “At some point, we suspect that he somehow generated the super longevity genome.”

The genetic drawbacks of incest, he hypothesized, slowly faded away because those mutations either killed their carriers before they could reproduce or because the city noticed a monstrous disease – such as early-onset Alzheimer's – in a particular family line and stayed away from it. wide. “You're in a small town, you'll probably get tagged.”

Dr. Longo wonders whether Italian centenarians were protected from later disease by a period of starvation and an old-fashioned Mediterranean diet in their early years, during the abject poverty of war-era rural Italy. Then, after Italy's postwar economic miracle, a boost of protein and fat and modern medicine protected them from frailty as they aged and kept them alive.

It could, he said, be a “historic coincidence that you will never see again.”

The mysteries of aging struck Dr. Longo at a young age.

He grew up in the northwestern port of Genoa, but every summer he visited his grandparents in Molochio, Calabria, a city known for its centenarians. When he was 5 years old, he stayed in a room while his grandfather, in his 70s, died.

“Probably something very preventable,” Dr. Longo said.

At age 16 he moved to Chicago to live with relatives and couldn't help but notice that his middle-aged aunts and uncles, fed the “Chicago diet” of sausages and sugary drinks, suffered from diabetes and cardiovascular diseases like their relatives in Calabria. Not.

“It was like the '80s,” he said, “just like the Nightmare Diet.”

While in Chicago, he often went downtown to plug his guitar into any blues club that would allow him to play. He enrolled in the renowned jazz guitar program at the University of North Texas.

“Even worse,” he said. “Tex-Mex.”

He eventually ran afoul of the music program when he refused to lead the marching band, so he shifted his focus to his other passion.

“Aging,” he said, “was on my mind.”

He eventually earned his doctorate in biochemistry at UCLA and did his postdoctoral training in the neurobiology of aging at USC. He overcame initial skepticism in the field to publish in leading journals and became a zealous evangelist of the age-reversing effects of his diet. About 10 years ago, wanting to be closer to his elderly parents in Genoa, he took a second job at the IFOM oncology institute in Milan.

He found a source of inspiration in Genoa's rich pescatarian diet and in all the legumes of Calabria.

“Genes and nutrition,” he said of Italy as an aging laboratory, “is just incredible.”

But he also found the modern Italian diet – the cured meats, layers of lasagna and fried vegetables that the world was hungry for – horrendous and a source of disease. And like other Italian aging researchers who look to inflammation for the cause of aging or hope to eliminate senescent cells with targeted drugs, he said Italy's lack of investment in research is a shame.

“Italy has an incredible history and a wealth of information about aging,” he said. “But he spends virtually nothing.”

Back in his lab – where colleagues were preparing the fasting-mimicking diet “broth mix” for mice – he passed a photograph on a shelf depicting a broken wall and read: “We are slowly falling apart.” He talked about how he and others have identified an important regulator of aging in yeast and how he has studied whether the same pathway is at work in all organisms. He said his pursuit benefited from his past life of musical improvisation because it opened his mind to unexpected possibilities, including using his diet to starve cells affected by cancer and other diseases .

Dr. Longo said he thinks his mission is to extend youth and health, not simply increase the years on the clock, a goal he said could lead to a “scary world,” in which only the wealthy they could afford to live for centuries, potentially imposing limits on the ability to have children.

A more likely short-term scenario, he said, is a split between two populations. The first would live as we live now and reach about 80 years or more thanks to medical advances. But Italians would be saddled with long – and, given the declining birth rate, potentially lonely – years burdened by horrific diseases. The other population would follow fasting diets and scientific discoveries and live to be 100 and perhaps 110 years old in relative good health.

A practitioner of what he preaches, Dr. Longo imagined himself in the latter category.

“I want to live to 120, 130. It makes you really paranoid now because everyone's like, 'Yeah, of course you need to at least get to 100,'” he said. “You don't realize how hard it is to get to 100.”

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