Episode 27 | Bill Gifford | Stay Young Forever

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People will do some pretty interesting things to look younger, feel younger, and to live longer – myself included. As we age, it’s only natural that we want to look and feel our best. So it’s easy to buy into the promise of eternal youth – whether it’s a product, a treatment, or some magic elixir – and it can get downright confusing to separate fact from fiction.
So, I’m thrilled to speak with journalist Bill Gifford. When Bill turned 40, he was given a birthday cake and written on the top of it were the words: Rest in Peace My Youth. That message prompted Bill to go on a quest to find ways to slow down or even reverse the aging process. His New York Times bestselling book, Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (or Die Trying), is a fascinating read. Bill reveals why some people live to be 100 without even trying, how your fat tissue could be killing you, and how to heal your DNA back to a younger version of itself. To research the book, he talked to scientists as well as everyday body hackers who were working on discovering how to reverse the effects of aging.
Bill Gifford is a contributing editor for Outside Magazine and has written extensively on science, sports, health, and fitness for Wired, Men’s Health, Men’s Journal, Slate, The New Republic, and Bicycling – just to name a few.
I loved your book and I really enjoyed reading about some of the pioneers that started this anti-aging movement – some of them are pretty colorful. So, if you don’t mind, could you take a moment and tell us about some of your favorite characters that really spearheaded this whole anti-aging movement?
One of the most interesting people was this guy named Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard and he was a French physician. He was known as the father of Endocrinology which is the study of glands. And once he got to be around 70-years old he realized that he had lost his vigor, his ability to concentrate, and his strength. So, since he knew about glands, he brewed up this concoction of mashed up dog testicles and injected himself with it. (Note: Do not do this at home.) This was around 1889 and scientists generally experimented on themselves first. He did this for three weeks and then stood up before a fancy scientific meeting in Paris and proclaimed himself to be vastly rejuvenated. He was stronger. He could think more clearly. He could work harder. He could stay up later. His peers were horrified, but he declared the experiment a success.
Later on there was a guy named John Brinkley who was based in Texas. He became one of the richest men in America by performing a specific surgery: implanting goat testicles into the bodies of middle-aged men. So, you can see a common theme here: there is a lot of interest in testicles back then. Luckily we’ve moved into actual science.
It’s interesting that hormones were so important to this concept of anti-aging even back in the late 1800s. We still see that today. Can you talk a little bit about your understanding of how the role that hormones – specifically testosterone – work in the aging process?
A lot of attention is focused on hormone replacement treatments. Estrogen or testosterone treatments can cost thousands of dollars a year and, quite frankly, the safety data is not great. Also, there’s more and more evidence that testosterone, in men, can potentially increase their risk of dying for men. That means that the hormone is actually accelerating aging and not slowing it down. So you think that you look and feel better, but you’re actually kind of burning the candle at both ends. We don’t really know what’s going to happen to your body in 20 to 30 years.
I’ve been saying for years that fitness and nutrition is about your overall health and happiness – everything else is just an added benefit.
So, what percentage of our longevity is from genetic factors and what percentage is based on lifestyle?
That’s the eternal question. Of course, both play a role. But, what the research seems to show is that if you have a healthy lifestyle – meaning you’re active and you don’t eat too much – you don’t become obese, you don’t get diabetes, and you have a much better chance of being a healthy 80-year old. But then, after that, genes seem to take over. And so, to be a healthy 100-year old person, you really have to have certain genes that essentially protect you from the things that get the rest of us. These are things like heart disease, heart failure, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. Centenarians, generally, seem to be protected from those things. I have a dog who’s 16 years old and she had a brother who died when they were 12 because he had cancer. So she must have genes that protect her from the cancer which is what generally kills dogs. And it’s the same thing for people who live to older ages.
After going out into the field and interviewing scientists, do you think we’ll be able to make drastic jumps in our life expectancy? Is that based in reality or it this just wishful thinking?
There’s a sort of a school of thought, generally centered around Silicon Valley, that somehow we could engineer aging out of the human body. To me, that seems to be wishful thinking. It’s taken aging a million years to evolve and it’s going to be very difficult to undo that. But, then again, the science is very much in its infancy and the research has been very underfunded up until now. So, basically, we don’t really know.
But one thing that is interesting is that scientists have learned that aging is modifiable and malleable – at least on the margins. You can feed a lab animal a different diet and it will live 25 percent longer. There are drugs you can give mice or monkeys or other animals and they will live 20 to 30 percent longer. And so there’s the possibility that in the near future we’ll be taking some sort of benign medication that will let us be healthier when we’re 80-, 85-, or even 90-years old. I think that’s a distinct possibility.

Is there either a specific type of exercise or a specific diet that has been found to contribute to longevity or is it more about keeping your weight down and moving?
If there was a secret vitamin out there I would probably be trying to sell it to you! But, really, I think the secret vitamin is exercise. And we say that all the time and I think it’s very easy to ignore or put off until tomorrow. Research has shown that exercise impacts basically all body systems – from your brain, to your liver, to your skin, to your sex organs. When your muscles are working, they send beneficial signals to the rest of your body. And they’ve done comparisons of clinical trials of exercise and clinical trials of prescription medications against various conditions including like diabetes, heart attack risk, and stroke. It turns out that exercise is as effective or more effective than nearly all of these major categories of prescription drugs. So, again, exercise is the drug. It’s the miracle vitamin.
So, after doing all of this research, what kind of exercise do you do?

A few times a week I really get out there and push it. I want to sweat and really feel myself working. I think it’s important to have some intensity in your workouts because that activates certain cellular repair mechanisms that lower intensities simply don’t do. Also, I’ve started to do yoga on a somewhat regular basis. It makes my body feel good, it relieves stress, it helps me sleep, and it definitely helps my balance. In fact, I’ve really focused on balance recently.  If I’m at the mall or out walking, I’ll try to balance on a curb like I’m on a balance beam. Sometimes I’ll try to stand on one foot and see how long I can go. This is all very important because, as you get older, you lose that sense of balance and you simply move less efficiently – that can create a series of cascading effects. But, it’s something you can push back against by focusing on.

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