Eat Less Food and Play More Bridge

No sure bets but longevity and healthy aging appear linked to diet, stimulating social activities.


It's been a dream month for the Calorie Restriction Society. The private group was begun about 15 years ago and is devoted to the increasingly likely proposition that people can significantly extend their life spans through extremely low-calorie diets. That belief got a major nudge last week from a University of Wisconsin study using rhesus monkeys, who are genetically close to humans and the most advanced test subjects to date for looking at the impact of such diets.

News outlets around the world gave 15 minutes of fame to two of the research subjects, Canto and Owen. They are about the same age but Canto has been on a restricted-calorie diet while Owen has not.  Photographs show Canto to be trim, Owen not so much. Canto looks more alert but perhaps that's my wishful thinking. Yet, study findings did report that low-calorie test subjects not only lived longer but also showed more mental acuity and fewer signs of aging than monkeys fed a normal diet. At least Owen is still alive. Many of his normally fed peers haven't been so lucky, although it will be many years before all the research monkeys live out their lives and final research results can be tallied. Meanwhile, other research involving human subjects is adding weight to the notion that the typical cognitive declines associated with longevity can be fended off, to a degree, by a life style that involves lots of social engagement and, in particular, activities that are mentally challenging. Thus it was that 90-year-old bridge players in California found themselves last May on the front page of The New York Times talking about how playing bridge not only fills their minds but, literally, saves those minds from decay as well. (More than 40 years ago, bridge used to save me a lot -- it saved me from attending college lectures, from doing assignments, from studying for exams, from, well, you get the idea. Bridge was a consuming card game then and, perhaps, might be again one of these days.)

The Times' story, by Benedict Carey, painted a powerful portrait of its subjects at the bridge table, and introduced one of them as follows: "'We play for blood,' says Ruth Cummins, 92, before taking a sip of Red Bull at a recent game." God, I hope I can take a swig of Red Bull when I'm 92! Hopefully, they will have made it taste better by then.

Elsewhere, in interviews I've done with folks at retirement communities and with people who spend lots of time with older folks, similar benefits of social activity are recounted and extolled. At least this message about aging is clear: solitary life styles may not only be sad but may lead to earlier dementia, other illnesses and a premature death. You don't want to go there. That's one reason that developers of programs to help seniors stay in their homes emphasize cultural activities as an essential component of healthy aging.

[See Is a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community Right for You?] The benefits of low-calorie diets have been known for a long time. And it's no secret that people with full, active lives are, generally, happier and healthier than people who don't seek such companionship and stimulation. Why are we so slow to do what we know is good for us? Why is obesity a national catastrophe hiding in plain sight? Are we all waiting for a resveratrol pill or other drug that counters or even reverses the effects of aging?

Behaviorial resesearchers have long noted that people do not respond well to situations that require current sacrifice to achieve benefits that won't be realized for a long time (or, on the flip side, to forego small vices that cause huge cumulative health effects). That's one of the reasons we don't save enough to build solid retirement plans. I have my own suspicions but as then-candidate Barack Obama cleverly replied when asked a tough right-to-life question, "That's above my pay grade."

What do you think? Why don't people take the steps to invest in better futures?