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Life Arts    H4'ed 2/14/11

"What doesn't kill me makes me stronger.'

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This was Nietzsche's philosophy in 1888, but it took twentieth century science to demonstrate how right he was.

During the Great Depression our government was concerned that people were literally not getting enough to eat. The FDA funded a lab study to measure the damage that underfeeding does to health and longevity. Dr Clive McKay limited a hundred lab mice to 20% less than they were used to eating. The mice were agitated and hyperactive, and their growth was stunted. But McKay was surprised to find that the starved mice were healthier and lived longer. In the next round of experiments, he cut their rations even further, and they lived longer yet. The mice lived longer and longer with less and less food. At the point where some of the mice were dying of starvation, the ones that survived had life spans more than half again as long as the fully-fed mice.

For thousands of years, people have assumed that the way to long life was to protect, even to pamper the body. Not so. In people as in lab animals, the way to a long and healthy life is through hardship, deprivation -- even injury.

Your vocabulary word for the day is hormesis , and it's the scientific phenomenon to which Nietzsche was doubtless referring: in response to many kinds of challenges and insults, the body overcompensates, improving our vitality, extending our lives.

In lab tests, small quantities of poisons extend animals' life spans. Exposing them to extremes of heat and cold, likewise. Animals that are housed in a sterile environment, free of bacteria, don't live as long as animals that sometimes get sick. Physical trauma, broken bones and lacerations lead to slower aging, not faster. Even dreaded atomic radiation can be a boon: large doses cause cancer, but small doses seem to extend life.

You've heard a lot about the damage we suffer from free radicals and the antioxidants that are supposed to protect us. Have you heard that, in the biggest study to date, people who took antioxidant vitamins suffered more cancer and shortened lives? Vigorous exercise generates free radicals faster than the body can mop them up, but we know that exercise makes us healthier keeps us younger. And recently it's been shown that antioxidant vitamins (A, C and E) can actually keep you from reaping some benefits of exercise!

Mental challenge, as well as physical, can extend life span. Old people who use their brains in new ways are less likely to suffer from Alzheimer's. Learning a language or a musical instrument late in life can help keep our brains alert and our bodies young.

How about stress? Here the situation is a bit more complicated. There are two kinds of stress, which I think of as "empowered' and "helpless'. People who are oppressed, stuck in poverty with all the hardships that imposes, have shorter lives. But people who work too hard because they take on big challenges actually live longer.

There's a mega-industry out there selling you "natural remedies' for longer life. But think about it! "Natural' means giving the body the things for which evolution designed it. "Natural' is a way to pamper ourselves, and it leads to shorter life spans. (Read more about evolution and why our bodies behave in this paradoxical way: http://mathforum.org/~josh/humanist.html)

Stay as skinny as you can tolerate*. Exercise like a demon. Challenge yourself socially and intellectually -- in your community, in politics, in your creative life.

Stress the body, stretch the mind. Go for it! And may you live a long, long time.

You can read more of Mitteldorf's advice for a long and healthy life at http://AgingAdvice.org.

* There's good news for people who have a hard time shedding pounds: The benefits of cutting calories are relative to your genetics and your metabolism. In fact, people who endure hunger and may still look a bit stout have better prospects than those who can overeat and stay effortlessly slender.

 

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Josh Mitteldorf, a senior editor at OpEdNews, blogs on aging at http://JoshMitteldorf.ScienceBlog.com. Read how to stay young at http://AgingAdvice.org.
Educated to be an astrophysicist, he has branched out from there to mathematical (more...)
 

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