Several years ago, a geologist named Anatoli Brouchkov harvested some bacteria that had survived in the Arctic permafrost for eons. When the bacteria was injected into female mice, the compound seemed to extend their youth. Though Dr. Brouchkov is neither female nor a mouse, he wondered whether it could slow his own aging — and ate some of it.
When I pointed out that this might have been a terrible idea, he giggled. “I was just curious,” he said. His attitude was: If you have found some prehistoric microbes, how could you not put them in your mouth?
In the field of anti-aging and longevity research, self-experiments are all the rage. Valter Longo, director of the University of Southern California Longevity Institute, undertakes multiday fasts. Other scientists are dosing themselves with the diabetes drug metformin, believing it may help protect their cells from wear and tear. Charles Brenner, a biochemist, has drunk milk laced with high doses of nicotinamide riboside, a type of vitamin B that might defend against aging.
And many of us are imitating them. The longevity scientists have their own fan bases — groupies and wannabes trying to replicate esoteric laboratory regimens at home. There are online forums devoted to Dr. Brenner’s research on which people share data on how the vitamin affects everything from their blood pressure to their poop. Dr. Longo’s dietary program, ProLon, sells kits with teeny-weeny meals.
I’m susceptible to this kind of thinking myself — I fast for more than 12 hours a day, in homage to the findings of Satchidananda Panda at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Sometimes it seems as though everyone I know is adding a new supplement to their diet or subtracting a food group or component like gluten. We all want the same thing: to believe we have the power to stave off the ravages of old age.
But how much do our individual choices really matter?
The question sent me on a safari through the obituary pages, hunting for dead longevity experts so that I could find out how their experiments had ended. I conducted my search in the same spirit in which Dr. Brouchkov swallowed his permafrost extract — driven by curiosity, aware that my “findings” would be only anecdotal. Nonetheless, what I learned was enough to make you choke on your keto coconut-oil coffee.
Let’s start in the 1930s, when an American nutritionist named Clive McCay designed a low-calorie diet for his lab rats at Cornell that gave them all the nutrients they needed but kept them as thin as supermodels and (presumably) ravenous. The diet seemed to act like a time machine, and Dr. McCay’s hungry rats maintained their dapper, glossy coats of fur and frisked about their cages; their well-fed counterparts doddered about in shabby coats and then died. “In the laboratory today are two male white rats that are the equivalent in age to men more than 130 years old,” Dr. McCay announced, promoting the benefits of calorie restriction.
A gentleman farmer, Dr. McCay applied his theories to himself, nibbling on morsels from his own fields. But he didn’t make it close to 130. Though trim and athletic, he had two strokes and died at 69.
Over the decades that followed, research teams would repeat his experiments and confirm that calorie restriction almost always prolonged the lives of lab animals. One of the most prominent of those scientists, Roy Walford, showed that a strict diet could double the life span of mice. Dr. Walford himself stuck to a 1,600-calorie-a-day diet. In the 1980s, he wrote “The 120 Year Diet” and then followed it up with even more misery and abnegation in “Beyond the 120 Year Diet.” He became a cult figure to thousands of CRONies (“calorie restriction with optimal nutrition” enthusiasts) who hoped to live past 100. But he himself died of A.L.S., or Lou Gehrig’s disease, at age 79.
Some of the biggest names in dieting, organic agriculture and preventive medicine died at surprisingly young ages. The wild-foods enthusiast Euell Gibbons was far ahead of his time in his advocacy of a diverse plant diet — but he died at age 64 of an aortic aneurysm. (He had been born with a genetic disorder that predisposed him to heart problems.) The nutritionist Adelle Davis helped to wake millions of people to the dangers of refined foods like white bread, but she died of cancer at 70. Nathan Pritikin, one of the foremost champions of low-fat diets, died at 69, nearly the same age as Dr. Robert Atkins, who believed in the opposite regimen.
Then there is Jerome Rodale, founder of the publishing empire dedicated to health. In 1971, Dick Cavett invited Mr. Rodale onto his TV show after reading a New York Times Magazine article that called him “the guru of the organic food cult.” Mr. Rodale, 72, took his chair next to Mr. Cavett, proclaimed that he would live to be 100, and then made a snoring sound and died. (The episode never aired.)
There are obviously things you can do to improve your health. Give up cigarettes and start walking — that kind of common-sense lifestyle redo can deliver good results. But there are diminishing returns. My travels in the obituary section convinced me that the more esoteric personal choices — and diets based on the latest scientific findings — have far less of an effect on our own health than we may think.
Even those pioneers who did everything “right” were buffeted by circumstances that they couldn’t control on their own — like bad genes, accidents or exposure to smog or pesticides.
It’s the decisions that we make as a collective that matter more than any choice we make on our own.
Beginning in the 1970s, activists and governments collaborated to outlaw leaded gasoline worldwide and to reduce other sources of lead exposure. It is one of the best “lifestyle choices” that we humans have ever made. Average lead levels in our blood dropped by more than 80 percent — a huge health benefit, because lead exposure can increase the risk of heart disease, kidney disease and probably also dementia.
Unfortunately, we have yet to tame many other pollutants, like the particulate matter spewed by diesel engines and coal plants. And the damage from dirty air begins long before any of us can make our own health choices: A study released in January, for instance, suggests that babies exposed to high levels of air pollution in the womb may be at risk of premature aging.
When I asked Dr. Brenner about this, he agreed that the decisions that we make collectively might be the most important ones. He emphasized that the point of scientific self-experimentation should not be to live longer but to learn.
When he drank that vitamin-B-laced milk, he did it to find out whether the compound could be absorbed through the stomach. He then sat through a series of lab meetings with a rubber tube hanging off his arm so that his colleagues could collect his blood. The blood tests showed that the drink had increased his levels of a molecule that is thought to work like an ignition key to turn on mechanisms that prevent disease. However, it’s an open question whether Dr. Brenner’s compound could actually affect human aging and life span. To understand that will require testing on hundreds or thousands of people.
In the meantime, it’s the things we tend to ignore, like our exposure to pollution, that will affect us far more than the things we obsess about, like whether to eat gluten.
That’s the problem with n-of-one-ism, in which we pursue, individually and alone, our own path to health. The greatest gains in longevity have occurred not because of personal choices but because of public sanitation, clean water and the control of infectious diseases. According to Dr. Thomas Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “since 1900, the average life span in the United States has increased by more than 30 years; 25 years of this gain have been attributed to public health advances.”
That’s why we should all fight for other people’s health. Your decisions can affect when I die, and vice versa.
Today, the greatest threat to your life span may be the Trump administration’s assault on public health and medical research. Dr. Robert Phalen, a new appointee to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Scientific Advisory Board, has said that he believes our air is “too clean.” Next year, we’re likely to see drastic cuts to mental-health research, oil-spill remediation and clean-water programs. The embattled Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may soon have to shut down a global disease detection and prevention program. That’s why I’ve added some new components to my diet-and-exercise routine this year: I’m calling Congress and donating to organizations that work for environmental justice.
The founder of Bulletproof Coffee recently bragged that he hopes to live to age 180, in part by sipping one of his company’s signature drinks made with “Brain Octane Oil.” But aging isn’t some kind of competitive sport you play against your peers. When it comes to staying alive, we’re all in it together.
Pagan Kennedy is the author of Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World and a contributing opinion writer.