Those of us of a certain age – and we know who we are – look at some of our habits and start wondering what little changes we could make in our diets that might pay dividends by extending our lives. Perhaps one less glass of wine here or a little less red meat there. Maybe just a latte instead of a venti mocha chocolate sauce-a-chino at Starbucks. How about a walk after dinner, dear?
These are all reasonable things to contemplate. Unless, of course, you’re a group of middle-aged scientists. In which case, trying to buy yourself a few years starts with starving monkeys.
I am not making this up.
The New York Times reports that scientists have been starving rhesus monkeys (OK, the words in the story are “severely restricted diets”) for their own good. The theory is that when you reach old age you should starve yourself to extend your life. I suppose the idea is that the body’s survival mechanisms kick in because, well, you’re starving.
No word on whether this is actually a psychological experiment to see if those later years just seem longer.
In many ways, ideas like this are nothing new. Ancient Greek physicians had a highly developed regimen of who should eat what and saw no distinction between menus and medicine. Generations later in Western culture, fat people were thought to be healthy and in many ways they were since their health was measured against the starving serfs and beggars in the streets who did not have a very long, happy life.
The link between food and medicine is now part of our popular culture. Mass-produced foods are marketed as medicine. Apparently, if you eat Cheerios you don’t die. I saw it on TV just the other day.
But, let’s stop monkeying around and get back to that experiment.
When the monkeys get old, we’ll starve them to see if that extends their lives. This was more than just a hypothesis to some scientists. According to the Times, some of the scientists believe in this starvation life extension so enthusiastically that they have “severely restricted” their own diets. The idea was intoxicating (or perhaps it was just delirium from not eating) since several studies on rats and other animals indicated a positive link.
So, these scientists were starving themselves and anyone who depended on them for food without bothering to note that some other, better fed, scientists were looking at those seminal studies and suggesting that the science was flawed. Apparently the original researchers discounted any lab rat deaths from a cause not directly attributable to old age (you know, like malnutrition from not getting enough to eat).
The results from this latest round of starvation studies? These skinny old monkeys did not live any longer than monkeys who ate a regular diet. However, they were three times as likely to yell things like, “You kids get off of my lawn!”