The Polarized Postdoc

Monkey Business

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While some of us are scooping summer bliss out of ice cream cones, the on-shift scientists continue their quest for the secrets of life. In this case, of eternal life. But of course, their proposed recipe for extended youth has major catch.

Life-prolonging phenomena are harder to come by that life-ending ones, but nevertheless some thirty years back it was discovered that caloric restriction diets effectively prolonged life span. For those of us who make our pies with lard, there was the consolation that those results came from studies in mice. Arguably of limited relevance for human biology, mice, with their intense three years average lives, were still he model organism of choice until know. They are a useful albeit imperfect system to study longevity, given the obvious drawbacks of setting up experiments likely to last longer than the researcher´s life span.

But eventually, curiosity and rigor prevailed and a group from Wisconsin stared thirty years ago to test whether caloric restriction had an effect on longevity. To this aim they used the closest non-human primate, the rhesus monkey. 30 males and 30 females were placed on either on a control or a low- calorie diet for 30 years. For those of you interested in those things, the low diet contained 15% protein and 10% fat.

During the course of the study, the investigators examined aging-related parameters, namely mortality and onset of related conditions such as cardiovascular disease, brain atrophy, cancer and diabetes. The results, contrary to non-conclusive previous studies, unequivocally show that a lower calorie intake expands life for an average of ten years. Moreover, leaner monkeys seem to display a healthier condition overall, with delayed onset of the diseases studies.

When compared to their take-out dinner mates (left) they look like this:

drop those cupcakes!

drop those cupcakes!

These pictures are striking, and gave raise to a very healthy, amusing debate amongst my fellow scientists. Of note, though, these data compare “normal” to “low” calories, and we can not extrapolate on the negative effects of a high calorie diet on the life span, a subject still under heavy debate.

Looking at this compelling evidence, we can reflect on quantity vs. quality. There are no standarized measurements for a good life, but I still spent a long time staring into the monkeys´ eyes. Trying to decipher if, beyond all those physiological readouts, there were other differences. Other than physical appearance, the paper does not comment on the quality of the macaques lives. Are the low-calorie diet monkeys more active, more creative, do they socialize more? Are they smarter, funnier, can they dance and sing better?

I don´t care, just give me a burger

I don´t care, just give me a burger

While those questions are irrelevant in the context of the presented research, they might be of interest for you as they are for me. In fact, the end point count of travels and stories, parties and midnight swims and hikes and dinners with friends and cakes in the oven may be more important to you than scoring those extra years.

To date, science can´t help you evaluate that, and the question is only yours to ask. Is a life of lyophilized broccoli worth getting 30% more years? Or living at all? If the answer is yes, now you have that option, just have to keep following science´s advice. If the answer is no, on the other hand, you might want to navigate in a different direction.

Whatever your choice may be, happiness is still not a monkey business. So however long and flavorful you decide to make your life, hope you make the most of it!

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Written by polarizedpostdoc

July 17, 2009 at 11:02

Posted in science

Tagged with , ,

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