Ways to gain longevity often stretch bounds of credibility

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Have you heard of the Hunzakuts? If so, you may have heard claims that they have almost no cancer.

They live in Pakistan’s Hunza Valley, surrounded by mountains that dwarf any in the United States. It’s been said these people lived to nearly biblical ages.

Promoters attributed Hunzakut health, longevity and “clear eyes” to a diet rich in apricots and almonds. Articles appeared in Prevention magazine and elsewhere.

Then political battles arose over legalization of laetrile, falsely labeled as a new vitamin, extracted from apricot seeds.

Years later, the fad largely disappeared. It was shown that the Hunzakuts were not a well people and their longevity couldn’t be documented.

Studies of laetrile showed no benefit for cancer patients, but did demonstrate a significant risk of cyanide toxicity.

None of it should have been a surprise.

In ancient Egypt, a favorite way of getting rid of an enemy was death by peach.

The toxin is in the seed, which is inside the pit. It’s hard to get at and you would have to ingest a lot and chew them well to get into serious trouble.

There was at least one case of a patient who heard that apricot pits cured cancer and swallowed whole pits until they caused a bowel obstruction.

In the 1960s I served as a U.S. Army Green Beret physician in Kurdistan. Stories of longevity were popular there, too.

I took a picture of a man who was said to be 130 years old. There were no better records in those mountains than there were in Pakistan.

Oral history expands on reality and extra years may be added for perceived wisdom. Longevity creates stories that add to a village’s importance.

Actual survival is usually miserable. Salesmen aren’t inclined to include those details.

I’d like to live to be 130 and have control of my brain and body functions. I don’t expect to get there through the vitamin section at Walmart.

Some researchers predict a future in which we’ll live much longer. We might cure more diseases, improve our lifestyles or discover the underlying process that makes older citizens prone to get vascular disease, cancer and dementia — afflictions that tarnish the golden years.

Think about the things that deteriorate with aging. Consider the challenge of finding common threads in the aging process — something more reliable than a huckster’s promise that may include double the vitamins for the price of one. “You only pay the extra ... yada yada.”

As we age, these are some of the things that happen:

Subcutaneous fat decreases. What we lose beneath the skin is replaced by fat hiding inside our abdomens. Sadly, visceral fat is more closely linked to heart attack and stroke risks. The same thing happens in rats. They provide a way to test hypotheses about aging.

Resistance to insulin increases. We become more likely to develop Type II diabetes. This becomes a major component of a combination of problems, called the metabolic syndrome.

Cancers become common.

Mitochondrial function decreases. Mitochondria are involved in providing energy for cell function.

Growth hormone, testosterone and other hormones decrease.

Decreased muscle mass and bone density raise the risk of injuries and fractures.

Brain slippage threatens our independence.

This partial list of age-related changes raises significant questions that science has studied with some success.

Are there ways to tie these things together?

Does a common thread exist?

Can we can target one chemical reaction and slow the effects of aging?

We’ll look at questions involving diet, exercise, and new concepts in coming columns.

For now, I’ll leave you with a couple of observations.

Visceral fat that increases with age can be removed in rats and those rats live longer. Severe caloric restriction may not be a practical to way live a longer life, but it may give us a way to solve the aging puzzle.

Sugar restriction puts less demand on insulin control. If we use healthier lifestyles as the standard for our grandchildren, they may live better lives.

When I revisit this subject in about a month, I plan to consider the potential for regular exercise to change basic metabolism and even fight cancer.

We’re enjoying the corn-and-tomatoes time of year. At home, my wife makes a great summer vegetable dish, and I put fewer steaks on the grill.

Combine better eating with more time in Walla Walla’s parks. Talk with somebody. Read the U-B and a book. Keep the brain active.

My beliefs drift outside the constraints of science — beware.

Walla Walla could be a city that leads the way in better health, attitudes and educational excellence. Future researchers should come here and avoid a trek to Pakistan’s Hunza Valley.

I was disappointed, though, that we rejected our water park and we’ve not been particularly bicycle friendly.

These issues go beyond government and involve community attitudes.

I found myself biking down Rose Street while it was under repair. I couldn’t find a place to get out of the way of a car that moved close to my back tire and blasted the horn repeatedly.

Walla Walla can become smarter and healthier.

Dr. Larry Mulkerin is a retired clinical professor and oncologist who lives in Walla Walla. A former U.S. Army Green Berets medical officer with experience in the Middle East, he also is the author of “The Ayatollah’s Suitcase,” a novel available at amazon.com and other online book retailers. He can be reached at mulkerin@charter.net.

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