Feature Archive

How to Live to Be 120

Diet may be the key.

WebMD Feature

Aug. 28, 2000 -- Roy Walford, MD, professor emeritus of pathology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), is preparing to eat lunch, and you can hardly blame me for scrutinizing his plate.

This is, after all, the man who has long claimed that calorie restriction with optimal nutrition (what he calls the CRON diet) can help people live for 120 years -- possibly even longer. This is also the man who, in an era of rapidly increasing obesity, has made the radical suggestion that Americans maintain a weight 10% to 25% below their "set points" (the weight the body naturally gravitates to). So who wouldn't want to see if the man practices what he preaches?

Actually, Walford's lunch surprises me a little. On his plate, prepared by one of the two office assistants at his Venice Beach, Calif., home, is a meal not mentioned in his new book, Beyond the 120-Year Diet, an update of his 1986 book, The 120-Year Diet. It consists of a small slice of gourmet pizza topped with vegetables, grilled squash, and a fistful of penne pasta with tomato sauce. Walford assures me this is not his usual midday repast: "I ate out last night and there were leftovers, so I brought them home." But the man is not the ascetic one might assume him to be. In fact, a lot of assumptions about Walford are off the mark.

Not Your Average White-Coated Lab Rat

To be sure, Walford, 76, is unconventional. He sports a shaved head and a walrus moustache, and he lives a rather bohemian existence in a boarded-up commercial building just steps away from the Venice boardwalk -- a place where people come to whirl on skateboards, get tattooed, and sometimes espouse kooky theories. He has published fiction and poetry, dabbled in performance art, and among other expeditions, has trekked across Africa.

Yet Walford has also maintained a distinguished career as a gerontologist for more than 50 years. An adventurer as well as a scientist, he is best known for his two-year stint in Biosphere 2, the utopian greenhouse experiment in self-sustenance conducted in Oracle, Ariz. Because many of its crops failed, the Biosphere inadvertently became a human study in severe calorie restriction -- in fact, the only such study that has been done on humans to date.

But Biosphere also took a serious physical toll on Walford. Working six days a week in the fields left him with an injured back that ultimately required surgery. Worse, he suffered nitrous oxide poisoning because the structure's glass enclosure prevented ultraviolet light from penetrating and dissipating the gas, an agricultural byproduct. The resulting nerve damage has made it difficult for Walford to walk. When we meet, he sits somewhat hunched behind his desk the entire time. He appears more frail and diminutive than I expected.

The Science of Calorie Restriction

The notion that humans may live 50% longer if they eat less is extrapolated from work with animals, Walford says. The first research showing that calorie-restricted rats live longer than their regularly fed counterparts was done in 1935 at Cornell University. Subsequent studies over the last 65 years (Walford estimates that there are 2,000 to 3,000 papers on the topic) have produced similar results and have also indicated that animals on calorie-restricted diets have a lower incidence of cancer, arteriosclerosis, and autoimmune disease. Results have been so promising that the National Institute on Aging (NIA) now spends $3 million a year to study caloric restriction, mostly in rats and monkeys, and has funded Walford's work in the past.

Walford has been doing pioneering calorie restriction work with animals since the 1960s. He's found that the animals not only live longer, they live better. For instance, his 1987 study in the Journal of Gerontology found that when mice of varying ages were placed on rotating rods to test their muscle strength and coordination, calorie-restricted 31- to 35-month-old mice performed just as well as their 11- to 15-month-old counterparts. Likewise, the older mice did as well on maze tests, indicating that they had no apparent decline in mental function. "People say they don't want to live to 120 because they think they're going to be frail for 40 years," says Walford. "They don't realize that calorie restriction extends the period of viability and good health."

Exactly how the CRON diet may extend life is not known, but several theories have been proposed. "One is that animals, when faced with a shortage of food, will rechannel energy from growth and reproduction into maintenance and repair," says Walford. Other theories suggest that the diet may limit cell-damaging free radicals, decrease blood sugar and insulin, or prevent the immune system from deteriorating.