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To live beyond 100, you need to eat a lot less: ideas from an Italian expert on aging

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Most of the group subscribed to a live-fast-die-young lifestyle. But while they took part in the drinking and drug use endemic to the 1990s grunge scene after gigs at the Whiskey a Go Go, the Roxy and other West Coast clubs, the band’s guitarist , Valter Longo, an Italian doctoral student obsessed with nutrition, began to sing. student, struggling with a long-standing addiction to longevity.

Today, decades after Dr. Longo abandoned his grunge-era band, DOT, for a career in biochemistry, the Italian professor stands, with his floppy rocker hair and lab coat, at the crossroads Italian obsessions with food and aging.

“For studying aging, Italy is just incredible,” said Dr. Longo, a youthful 56, in the lab he runs at a cancer institute in Milan, where he will speak at a a conference on aging later this month. Italy has one of the oldest populations in the world, with multiple pockets of centenarians that appeal to researchers looking 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 living longer and better by eating light Italian, one of the global explosions of Road to Perpetual theories Wellville 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 to, he says, allow cells to shed baggage harmful and rejuvenate, without the disadvantages of starving. He patented and sold his ProLon diet kits; published bestselling 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 of hundreds of elderly people – including in the Calabrian town where his family is from – which he says suggests that periodic cycles of his own false fasting approach could reduce biological age and avoid age-related diseases.

His private foundation, also based in Milan, designs diets suitable for cancer patients, but also advises 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 a laid-back Californian demeanor and an Italian accent. He added that many Italian children, particularly in the south of the country, are obese and bloated with what he calls the poisonous five Ps: pizza, pasta, protein, potatoes and meat (or bread).

At the foundation recently, resident nutritionist Dr. Romina Cervigni sat among pictures on the wall of Dr. Longo playing guitar with centenarians and shelves containing his longevity diet books, translated in many languages ​​and full of recipes.

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

Dr. Longo, who has split his time between California and Italy for the past decade, once occupied a niche field. But in recent years, Silicon Valley billionaires who hope to stay young forever have funded secret labs. Wellness articles have taken over newspaper front pages, and Fountains of Youth workout and diet ads featuring impossibly fit middle-aged people are swarming the social media feeds of people of all ages. Middle aged not incredibly fit.

But despite concepts like longevity, intermittent fasting, and biological age, you are only as old as your cells feel! — have grown in size, governments like Italy’s worry about a more fragile future in which burgeoning elderly populations drain the resources of shrinking young people.

And yet, many scientists, nutritionists and longevity fanatics around the world continue to look with envy at Italy, searching its deep pockets of centenarians for a secret ingredient for long life.

They probably continued to breed between cousins ​​and relatives.“, » offered Dr. Longo, referring to the sometimes close relationships in small Italian hill towns. “At some point, we suspect that this somehow generated the super-longevity genome.”

The genetic disadvantages of incest, he hypothesized, slowly disappeared because these mutations killed their carriers before they could reproduce or because the town noticed a monstrous disease – like early-onset Alzheimer’s – in a particular family lineage and avoided. “You’re in a small town, you’re probably going to get tagged.”

Dr Longo questions whether Italian centenarians had been protected from later illness by a period of famine and an old-fashioned Mediterranean diet from an early age, during the abject poverty of war-era rural Italy . Then, after Italy’s postwar economic miracle, a boost of proteins, fats and modern medicine protected them from frailty as they aged and kept them alive.

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

The mysteries of aging gripped Dr. Longo from an early age.

He grew up in the northeastern port of Genoa, but visited his grandparents every summer in Molochio, Calabria, a town known for its centenarians. When he was 5 years old, he stood in a room as his 70-year-old grandfather died.

“Probably something completely 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 a “Chicago diet” of sausages and sugary drinks, were suffering. of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, like their relatives in Calabria. not.

“It was like the 80s,” he says, “just like the nightmare diet.”

In Chicago, he would often head downtown to plug his guitar into any blues club that would let him play. He enrolled in the famous jazz guitar program at the University of North Texas.

“Even worse,” he said. “Tex Mex.”

He ultimately clashed with the music program when he refused to lead the marching band, so he focused on his other passion.

“Aging,” he said, “was all in my head. »

He ultimately earned his doctorate in biochemistry at UCLA and completed his postdoctoral training in the neurobiology of aging at USC. He overcame initial skepticism about the field to publish in leading journals and became a zealous evangelist for the anti-aging effects of his diet. About ten years ago, wanting to be closer to his aging parents in Genoa, he accepted a second job at the IFOM oncology institute in Milan.

He found inspiration in the pescatarian-rich diet around Genoa and all the legumes of Calabria.

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

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

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

Back in his lab – where his colleagues were preparing a diet-mimicking mouse “broth mix” – he passed a photo on a shelf of a broken wall and read: “We are slowly falling apart.” He explained how he and others had identified an important regulator of aging in yeast and how he studied whether the same pathway was at work in all organisms. He said his research benefited from his past life of musical improvisation because it opened his mind to unexpected possibilities, including using his diet to starve cells with cancer and other diseases.

Dr. Longo said he saw his mission as prolonging youth and health, not simply gaining more years, a goal he said could lead to a “scary world” in which only the rich could afford to live for centuries, potentially placing limits on having children.

A more likely scenario in the short term, according to him, would be that of a division between two populations. The first would live as we do now and reach around 80 years or more thanks to advances in medicine. But Italians would face long — and, given the declining birth rate, potentially lonely — years of horrendous diseases. The other population would follow fasting diets and scientific advances and live to be 100, even 110 years old, in relatively good health.

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

“I want to live to be 120, 130. It makes you really paranoid now because everyone says, ‘Yeah, sure, you have to at least make it to 100,'” he said. “You don’t realize how hard it is to get to 100.”

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