Flip Your Body's Longevity Switch

How to nudge your life expectancy into the triple digits and stave off the reaper.

By Jay Dixit, published on October 1, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

"I don't want to achieve immortality through my work," said Woody Allen. "I want to achieve it through not dying." The problem with trying to live forever, though, is that it's hard to know what works. That's because humans live so long in the first place. Think about it: If we invented a pill today that boosted your lifespan by 20 percent, it would take a hundred years to test its effectiveness.

Doctors would tell you many of the interventions discussed here are unproven—and they'd be right. But if you wait for every anti-aging remedy to be proven, you'll be dead long before all the answers were in. Here's the good news. Most of the anti-aging interventions that have any shot of extending your lifespan aren't going to hurt you. It may turn out that large doses of vitamin C don't actually nudge your life expectancy into the triple digits—but it's not going to kill you either.

So, if you want to live as long and as healthy as possible, you have two choices. You can wait until all the answers come in; or you can do everything that might make a difference. Herewith, a guide for the paranoid—the people who want to take no chances, and are willing to do everything they can to stave off the reaper, even if the payoff isn't guaranteed.

Restrict calories. "You look so skinny, you need to eat more! You're wasting away!" Your grandmother meant well when she tried to put some flesh on your bones, but she was going about it the wrong way. Of all the things you can do to boost your lifespan, calorie restriction is the most radical—and could have the most dramatic results. Calorie restriction has proven effective in all the animals tested so far, from fruit flies to mice, but there's no data yet on how long humans live when they restrict calories their whole lives.

The idea is that when your body thinks it's in a famine, it flips a survival switch and goes into emergency mode, shutting down nonessential systems so you can hang on till things get better and pass along your genes. (This could explain why calorie restricters sometimes report shrunken libidos.)

Calorie restriction was first demonstrated in rats, that lived 30 to 50 percent longer than their fully fed brothers and sisters. It's possible, at least in theory, that rats are built to survive in famines and people aren't—that we lack the survival toggle. That said, monkeys whose calories are restricted look young and spry deep into old age, while their more gourmand siblings slump arthritically in their cages, marred by wrinkles, liver spots, and grey hair.

However, a life that so pogramatically cuts down the pleasures of food is only half a life—and it requires the discipline and self-denial of a Siddhartha to endure a state of perpetual semi-starvation.

Take resveratrol supplements. Resveratrol, a substance found in red wine, pitches itself to the less ascetic set—the people who want to live forever but aren't willing to curtail the pleasures of the palate (and the full belly) to do so. The theory is that resveratrol activates the same survival gene that calorie restriction does. Resveratrol is a chemical produced by grapes in response to stress—cold, fungal attack, drought, and so on. The logic is that resveratrol acts as a signaling mechanism to your body—if grapes are pumping themselves full of this emergency compound, that means the food supply is probably about to be restricted, so the body flips its survival switch preemptively. Easy peasy—your body is in starvation mode and you don't even have to starve yourself. The signaling hypothesis is unproven in humans, but heavy doses of resveratrol prolong lifespan in yeast by 70 percent, and two studies showed that rats that take resveratrol have the endurance of trained athletes, and maintain healthy cardiovascular systems even when they become obese. And supplements allow you to consume a quantity of resveratrol equivalent to drinking 15 glasses of red wine a day—without consuming so much alcohol that you're doing your body harm.

Drink alcohol—especially red wine. We now know that people who drink in moderation—one drink a day for women, one or two for men—have lower rates of heart disease than people who don't drink, probably because alcohol increases the amount of good cholesterol and makes blood less likely to clot. This holds true for all types of alcohol, but red wine has other health benefits. Red wine may explain the so-called "French paradox"—the French eat a diet soaked in saturated fat but have rates of heart disease no higher than anyone else. Red wine contains antioxidants like procyanidin, which keeps blood vessels from constricting. But perhaps more important, it contains resveratrol. People who live in red wine producing regions have higher than average longevity. Resveratrol supplements may or may not work, but it seems clear that red wine has a longevity benefit. So if you can tolerate the alcohol, a glass of red wine a day is probably a good idea. But don't use these findings as an excuse to drink to excess. Once you hit three drinks a day, blood pressure goes up, the heart weakens, and your risk of heart disease and stroke actually goes up. And remember, alcohol is high in calories.