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Can a leaner life slow your aging?

By Sam Boykin
Correspondent
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Josh Mittledorf watches for the Grim Reaper more closely than most of us. The 64-year-old Philadelphia resident has a Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of Pennsylvania and is admittedly consumed with extending his time here on Earth for as long as possible. On his blog ( http://joshmitteldorf.scienceblog.com) he writes about health, aging and why you should really skip dessert.

Q: You’ve named your blog “Playing the Game for a Longer Life.” What does that mean?

In the mid-’90s I read an article by Richard Weindruch about how many animal species had been found to live longer when they were close to starvation. This got me thinking that if animals live longer when they’re challenged by a lack of food, that means that they’re living shorter by choice. So aging must be programmed into our genes.

Q: Why do you think that is?

Humanity was in balance with the ecosphere for hundreds of thousands of years. It was just in the 19th century that humans started lowering the death rate. The result has been wonderful for humanity and a disaster for the world’s ecosystem. There’s a global extinction going on with so many species, and it’s all because of humanity. We reproduce as fast as possible and live as long as possible and exploit everything in sight. Aging exists so there is a steady, controllable death rate that helps keep the ecosystem in balance.

Q: How does that tie in with animals living longer when they eat less?

On my blog I focus on how to live a long time. It’s amazing what evolution has done to aging. When there’s plenty of food around and no one is starving, age still maintains the death rate – when you’re fat and happy, you age very fast. When a famine hits, there are plenty of individuals who are dying of starvation so we don’t need aging to keep the death rate up – it takes a vacation.

Q: Did you change your own lifestyle after you had this epiphany in the mid-’90s?

I became obsessed with challenging myself physically and pushing my limits. I exercise prodigiously. I fast every week from Wednesday night to Friday morning. The older I get the better I take care of myself. I watch people my age whose bodies are falling apart and tears come to my eyes. But I have to work really hard.

Q: How long do you hope to live?

The world is changing in a number of really dramatic ways. It’s all so fascinating. I want to be around for as long as I can to see it.

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