Monday, April 23, 2007

CNN Investigative Reports: Chasing Life

CNN Special Investigations ran a one-hour report “Chasing Life” on Sunday, April 22. An early scene where a conveniently smooth-chested young man jobs and treadmill-rins with extensive electrocardiographic leads (maybe a Holter monitor) adhered to his chest provides a visual clue for the debate to come. Later the lean ascetic young man talks about his restricted calorie diet, and the show gets into a discussion of laboratory experiments on animals that indicate that severe calories restriction may extend life span.

Dr. Gabe Mirkin used to advocate his severe fat restriction on his radio talk show in the DC area back in the 1990s. He would also ask callers "What are your numbers?", a narcissistic concern (of a "health nut") that would seemingly contradict the more collective concerns that seem to be surfacing around longevity today. As for the severely restricted diet, this is nothing new. There are legitimate questions whether laboratory experiments on animals would hold true for homo sapiens in the real world. Perhaps heavier levels of nutrition contribute to fighting inflection. It does seem that excessive fat, however, is associated with many cancers.

Longevity has steadily increased with medical technology and more attention to personal health. Past generations, accepting high red-meat fat diets (as proof of conquering hunger) and cigarette smoking, accepted a natural life span that ended shortly after job retirement, and perhaps two or three decades after reproduction stopped. Elderly family members could be cared for at home without controversy because their long life in a position of dependency was unlikely; a natural end of life tended to occur sooner.

That has obviously changed in the past three decades or so. Longevity raises both the question of length of life, and of longer life with quality, particularly independence. The show presented a man of 95 still able to live alone.

The show discussed genetics, lifestyle, and location, especially people living in “Blue Zones” like Costa Rica are certain areas of the California central valley. One factor that seemed to support extended life-span with reasonable self-sufficiency is socialization or social cohesion with friends and especially extended family – “kinfolk”. Too much “independence” – an illusion created by technology – is not necessarily such a good thing for longevity. The moral value of socialization comes back into consideration, like it or not. The longevity of some family members can depend on the dedication and attention of others in the clan. Tribalism, it seems, can cut both ways.

This observation will certainly not be lost in the cultural wars. The right wing has been quick to point out the sharply reduced life spans for male homosexuals. This reduction of lifespan has been reversed somewhat – in fact, a lot -- by better therapies for HIV and safer behaviors. But the fact remains that for some people, having children and extended family, with all of the emotional shell that family can provide, means they will have a support system that gives them some context apart from their own actions and may give them a reason to try to live longer.

Picture: Quarry (like a strip-mine) at Gore VA on US-50

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