Journalist Bill Gifford is only 48, but he’s already aging with attitude. That’s largely because of what he learned while he was writing his book, “Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (Or Die Trying).” Gifford says the extensive research he did for the book has given him food for thought about how to live his life – hopefully for many more decades.
“Spring Chicken,” which landed on the New York Times’ bestseller list after its February publication, is billed as a ”full-throttle, high-energy ride through the latest research, popular mythology, and ancient wisdom on aging and lifespan.” Its title aside (is staying healthy really the same as staying “young”?) the book is a quick, fun and informative read that has readers tagging along while Gifford rubs elbows with famous scientists, hangs with aging pole vaulters and separates the scams from the science.
After sifting through the evidence, he tells readers: Red wine and coffee are worth drinking. The diabetes drug metformin may help protect heart health, reduce cancer risk and increase lifespan. Human growth hormone, a favorite treatment of doctors wanting to turn back the clock, does not pan out.
Senior Planet caught up with Gifford by phone to pin him down on our burning questions about aging.
What got you interested in the topic of aging?
Part of it was reaching my early to mid-40s and discovering that things about my body were starting to change. My own mother had already pronounced me ‘no spring chicken.’
Beyond that, my parents are aging well. Seeing the way they are aging compared to some of my friends’ parents… What struck me is that two 75-year-olds can be so drastically different than each other. They can seem a generation apart.
Who is the book for? At what age is information about healthy aging most helpful?
It’s hard to come up with a subject that applies to more people – we’re all susceptible to aging. A lot of studies indicate that middle age is sort of a critical period in determining your aging trajectory. However, it’s also kind of never too late. They did a study of people who were quite old and borderline frail essentially, and they put them on a moderate exercise program – and people in this group were able to stave off the point at which they needed to go to a nursing home.
What are the biggest aging scams and common myths?
Any time someone describes a product as anti-aging, my instinct is to run in the other direction. There are very few things proven to slow down aging in any way. Anti-aging is a synonym for bullshit. But I think the worst thing out there is human growth hormone or HGH, which is aggressively pushed by these anti-aging doctors, despite the fact that it is basically illegal for ‘treating’ aging. In some studies, HGH actually accelerates aging.
In your research on aging, what surprised you the most?
They are now finding that the aging process can be modified with existing drugs. No one should go out and try this, but a drug called rapamycin – a drug used to help prevent transplant rejection and reduce the incidence of cancer – seems to affect the aging process itself. It has unlocked a door that a lot of scientists thought would stay locked. The door leads to the possibility that we may be able to slow down the aging process so that we delay diseases.
Another is a drug that millions of those with diabetes take, called metformin. They have already found that it decreases mortality in diabetics compared with non-diabetics.
So aging is more malleable than we thought.
You visited labs where scientists are trying to ”hack” aging. Will they succeed?
Besides the fact that they are finding, almost by accident, drug compounds out there that seem to slow down the aging process in one way – that’s only one prong of the attack. There are other researchers who are looking for genes that may enable people to live to be 100. The very long-lived are genetically programmed.
How has your research affected what you do personally, healthwise?
I was fairly healthy to begin with, but I learned about the power of fasting. I’m a wus. I can’t fast for long periods of time, but I can go to a two-meal-a-day program. Science shows when you are not eating, your cells can go to that stress-resistant state. I started things like, once in a while I’ll skip breakfast, and I’ll eat lunch at 11:30 or noon followed by one more meal, dinner. There is research that shows that can have benefit not only for weight but also in terms of longevity.
On top of that, and for my own sanity, I began exercising more regularly and I incorporate a bike ride into my daily writing process. I joined a cycling club, so twice a week I go out with guys who are pretty competitive. I have to be in shape to keep up with them.
I quit eating burgers pretty much altogether and I cut out the French fries at first, and now I’ve gone down to once a month. I eat a very fresh diet, I cook a lot myself. I don’t eat a lot of dessert, and I don’t drink soda, ever.
What is up with your subtitle, “Stay Young Forever (or Die Trying)?”
I’m making fun of all those other self-help books out there – and maybe saying that the trying part is more important. By trying, I mean it’s important to pay attention to some of those things we talk about, like exercising and not eating French fries every single day.
As for staying young, we all know someone who is 75 or 80 and they still have the sparkle about them that we associate with youth. The athletes I saw at the senior games were doing long jump and pole vaulting. Some were very competitive, others were just having fun.
What does aging with attitude mean to you?
I think of somebody like Irving Kahn, this investment guy in New York who just passed away about the same time as the book came out. He was almost 107 when I interviewed him, and that was the least important thing to him. His age was incidental to him. He went to work every single day. He read a book every week. But he really didn’t care how old he was.
Is that model your model?
Yes. I think aggressive denial. And I want to be riding my mountain bike when I am 75, like my dad does.
What are the top three takeaways from the book, in your opinion?
One of the big takeaways is that in general, eating less is probably a good thing and particularly eating less carbohydrates, less sugar, less foods with a high glycemic content that raise blood sugar.
It’s tremendously important to keep as much activity in your life as you can tolerate. A decent level of activity – that means not going to the gym necessarily, but just walking more. Walking or riding a bike to a place you might have driven to.
A third thing that really isn’t in the book, but that I kind of discovered during the writing process – I quit setting the alarm. I sometimes write until 1 a.m. and rather than get up and kill myself, I let myself sleep.