We’ve all seen the ads for herbs, supplements, minerals, crystals, tinctures, creams, lotions, potions, pills, hormones, injections, apps, gadgets, and other “treatments” to combat the signs and symptoms of growing older. If you’re like anyone else of a certain age, you probably have at least a couple of these “breakthrough” therapies or “revolutionary” programs in your medicine cabinet or on your credit card bill.
There’s no shame in that. Who among us hasn’t wanted to look and feel as vibrant as we did a decade or two before? Who hasn’t wanted to wave a magic wand and kiss goodbye all the aches, pains, and ailments we or our loved ones grapple with on a regular basis?
Marketers and manufacturers know this all too well. No surprise: Trying to turn back time is big business. A recent AARP report found that people age 50 and up spend more than $100 billion a year on anti-aging products, services, and therapies in the United States alone. That number is expected to skyrocket in the coming years, as more Americans turn 50, more longevity solutions hit the marketplace, and more practitioners line up to peddle them.
It can be hard to know which of these offerings are legitimate and which, to put it bluntly, are just plain bunk. Treatments and procedures developed by “doctors” and “scientists” with questionable credentials and zero publication credits in reputable research journals are a telltale sign you’re being taken for a ride. Equally dubious is the hard sell coupled with a special discounted offer you “have to act on today.” And if anyone tries to sell you a miracle or time machine, you’d be wise to put away your wallet and rush to the nearest exit.
That said, a number of respected doctors, scientists, and academics have made great strides in longevity and disease research in recent years. They’ll be the first to admit that there are no overnight cures. To reap the benefits of their research, you’ll have to make the necessary lifestyle changes, including watching what you eat, stepping up your exercise, and getting more sleep. They’ll also tell you that their studies remain a work in progress, with many more clinical trials required before their work is complete.
We talked to several California scientists and medical practitioners about their work in longevity and how it could help the average Coachella Valley resident better manage their health. Here’s what they had to say.
“We might be able to keep our bodies alive with stents and other things. But are we going to be able to keep our brains alive?”Dr. Joseph Scherger, Eisenhower Health
The Role of Diet
With so many diet trends out there, it can be hard to know which eating habits will yield the best long-term results and which are only a fad. Valter Longo, director of the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, believes that the 25 years he’s spent researching genetics, nutrition, and age-related diseases provide a definitive answer.
A biochemist, Longo discovered that certain diets can activate stem cells and promote regeneration and rejuvenation in multiple organs of the body. Make your cells happy, the science shows, and you’ll greatly reduce your risk for diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease.
Using these findings, Longo designed a “fasting-mimicking diet” to be followed for five days at a time, three to four times a year. He found that, when combined with a daily pescetarian diet low in protein and sugar and rich in plant-based foods and healthy fats, mimicking fasting can slow down the effects of aging, combat degenerative diseases, reduce the need for prescription drugs, and keep patients at their optimum weight.
“The idea is to get people to be healthy to age 100 or longer,” says Longo, who details these findings and nutritional recommendations in his best-selling book The Longevity Diet. “I think it can completely change their life.”
So far, Longo’s clinical trials on mice have been wildly successful in using a combination of the fasting-mimicking diet and excellent nutrition to eliminate disease or drastically reduce the symptoms of chronic illness. One-hundred percent of the mice he studied with diabetes became disease-free. For mice with cancer, disease-free percentages varied from 20 to 60, depending on the type of cancer. And 20 percent of mice with multiple sclerosis became disease-free, while 50 percent of them saw drastically improved symptoms.
Longo and his team have since turned their attention to human clinical trials. In trials of adults who were prediabetic, had pre-cardiovascular disease, or were at risk for cancer, the combination of fasting-mimicking and healthful eating reduced disease risk factors such as high cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose levels. Now Longo has begun trials on people already suffering from chronic illnesses like Crohn’s, colitis, Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and other autoimmune disorders.
Longo concedes that it’s easier to “cure” mice of chronic illness than humans. After all, we would have to make the right dietary choices day after day to see the desired results. He also notes that it’s difficult to tackle so many diseases in human clinical trials and expect to see success across the board.
“The potential for brain stimulation, be it auditory stimulation or people wearing devices that give them electrical stimulation during sleep, is a huge area of interest.”Sarah Mednick, professor, UC Irvine and UC Riverside
The Sleep-Memory Connection
We all know that a good night’s sleep is essential for daily well-being. But could the quality and effectiveness of your sleep affect your long-term cognitive function, memory recall, and overall brain health as you age? Cognitive neuroscientist Sarah Mednick is a believer.
A professor at UC Irvine and UC Riverside, Mednick researches sleep and memory changes in the aging brain and the link between the two. Using volunteers in a lab, she has shown how sleep can be manipulated to improve memory and cognitive function.
The key is something called sleep spindles: quick bursts of brain activity that happen during stage-two sleep, which accounts for most of our time asleep. These sleep spindles are essential to making memories stick.
In her lab studies, Mednick has proven that sleeping pills like Ambien and auditory signals played through headphones can increase the amount of sleep spindles in older people. After giving study participants a memory test, Mednick outfits them with EEG equipment to track brain activity and sends them to bed with sleeping pills or headphones. (Some participants receive placebo pills or headphones that don’t play sound.) After waking in the morning, participants take another memory test.
“We found a lot of improvements in memory,” Mednick says. “Usually these are exactly the memories that decline in older adults: learning where things are, learning how to get someplace, or pieces of information that you have to consciously recall.”
Thanks to sleep spindles, the brain will “practice” performing these tasks and recalling these details while you sleep, Mednick explains. When you awaken, the practice enables your brain to recall this information faster and more accurately.
Although Mednick’s research focuses on subjects age 65 and up, her findings are just as relevant for people in their 40s and 50s. “Middle age is when memory actually starts to decline,” she explains.
The medical implications of her work are huge: Adjust the caliber of sleep, and you have the potential to enhance memory in older adults and people suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s, and various cognitive disorders.
Obviously, pushing Ambien on people with waning memory recall is not ideal. However, Mednick suggests, medical professionals can better educate patients about sleep “hygiene” tricks to promote a better night’s rest (such as getting enough daylight, retiring at the same time each night, and avoiding screen time before bed).
Mednick also anticipates a growing market of non-intrusive intervention devices that can help older adults increase the quality of their sleep. “The potential for brain stimulation, be it auditory stimulation or people wearing devices that give them electrical stimulation during sleep, is a huge area of interest,” she says. “A lot of these devices are pretty effective, but we’re just beginning to understand how and why they work.”
New Focus on Brain Health
As a practitioner of family medicine, Dr. Joseph Scherger is concerned that the medical community isn’t doing enough to prevent cognitive decline in older patients.
“We might be able to keep our bodies alive with stents and other things,” says Scherger, who has practiced medicine for 40 years, the past nine of them at Eisenhower Health in Rancho Mirage. “But are we going to be able to keep our brains alive?”
Specifically, he’s worried about Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. And while deaths from heart disease decreased by 11 percent between 2000 and 2015, deaths from Alzheimer’s increased by 123 percent during the same period.
The good news is that major diet and lifestyle changes can preserve cognitive function, keep dementia at bay, and even reverse cognitive decline, Scherger says. As proof, he points to two books published in 2017 by leading academic neurologists: The End of Alzheimer’s by UCLA professor of neurology Dale Bredesen, who spent 20 years doing lab research on the biology of the disease, and The Alzheimer’s Solution by Dean and Ayesha Sherzai, who co-direct the Brain Health and Alzheimer’s Prevention Program at Loma Linda University Medical Center, in which they assert that 90 percent of Alzheimer’s cases are preventable.
Both books outline the programs these researchers have used to reverse cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s patients. Both advocate for balanced nutrition, regular exercise, restful sleep, stress reduction, and keeping the mind sharp and engaged.
Adopting a diet of whole foods and nixing refined carbohydrates and sugars is imperative, Scherger says. “High blood sugar causes both brain atrophy and brain inflammation,” he explains.
Scherger’s recent book, Lean and Fit: A Doctor’s Journey to Healthy Nutrition and Greater Wellness, details his quest for better health for himself and his patients through diet and exercise.
Now he’s focused on educating patients and medical practitioners about preserving and improving cognitive health, regularly speaking on the subject throughout the Coachella Valley. For its part, Eisenhower Health is training its 70 primary care physicians in Bredesen’s protocol for preventing and reversing cognitive decline. The medical center also has enlisted the Sherzais to talk on their own protocol for staving off Alzheimer’s.
“There is now a focus on HIV and aging research. And we have the largest aging HIV population in the United States.”Gerry Bocian, CEO and director of clinical research, Palmtree Clinical Research, Palm Springs
Not all researchers and doctors concerned with longevity are in the business of preventing disease. Some focus on developing groundbreaking drugs to improve the symptoms and prolong the lives of those already living with chronic illness.
For instance, Palmtree Clinical Research in Palm Springs conducts clinical trials of new medications, devices, diagnostic tools, and medical treatments up for FDA approval.
The idea, says Gerry Bocian, Palmtree’s CEO and director of clinical research, is to give Coachella Valley physicians and patients treatment alternatives for infectious diseases like HIV, pulmonary diseases like COPD, and various dermatologic conditions. This May, Palmtree more than doubled its space by moving into a 3,000-square-foot facility. Bocian hopes to add several practice areas to the center’s repertoire, including pain management, women’s health, chronic lower-back pain, and urinary and bladder concerns.
To date, Palmtree has served 4,000 patients through the 60 clinical trials, many of whom have exhausted all other treatment possibilities.
Among the 17 clinical trials in progress at Palmtree are four HIV studies, including a monotherapy trial to control the virus with one drug that patients receive at the center rather than having to manage multiple medications on their own.
More good news for patients is the fact that many of the center’s clinical trials list no age limit among their requirements. “There is a focus now on HIV and aging research,” Bocian says. “And we have the largest aging HIV population in the United States”
HIV patients who volunteer for the center’s trials often have become resistant to all the commercially available drugs over the years. They have run out of viable treatment options.
But at Palmtree, researchers have seen the virus drop to undetectable levels and stay there over sustained periods of time. If doctors can control the virus, people living with it will age in almost the same way those without it .
Or as Bocian puts it, “We do save lives.”
Want to learn more? See the books written and recommended by the doctors and researchers interviewed in this story.
• The Longevity Diet: Discover the New Science to Slow Aging, Fight Disease and Manage Your Weight by Valter Longo, Ph.D., features his five-day fasting-mimicking diet for improved health and disease management.
• In Take a Nap! Change Your Life, Sara Mednick, Ph.D., explains when your optimum napping time is, how long you should try to sleep, how you can easily fall asleep, and the benefits of each of the five stages of the sleep cycle.
• Lean and Fit: A Doctor’s Journey to Healthy Nutrition and Greater Wellness by Joseph E. Scherger, M.D., MPH, focuses on “lifestyle medicine” — treating the causes of disease rather than relying on prescriptions and procedures.
• In Memory Rescue: Supercharge Your Brain, Reverse Memory Loss and Remember What Matters, Daniel G. Amen, M.D., details how diet, physical and mental exercises, and spiritual practices can improve your brain health and memory.
• The End of Alzheimer’s: The First Program to Prevent and Reverse Cognitive Decline by Dale E. Bredesen, M.D., outlines 36 metabolic factors that can lead to this debilitating disease and suggests lifestyle modifications to stave it off.
• Neurologists Dean and Ayesha Sherzai share their comprehensive program for preventing Alzheimer’s disease and improving cognitive function in The Alzheimer’s Solution: A Breakthrough Program to Prevent and Reverse the Symptoms of Cognitive Decline at Every Age.