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Roy Walford, 79; Eccentric UCLA Scientist Touted Food Restriction

May 01, 2004|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

Dr. Roy Walford, the free-spirited UCLA gerontologist who pioneered the idea of restricting food intake to extend life span and practiced the concept rigorously in an effort to live to 120, has died. He was 79.

Although he was an accomplished scientist with more than 330 scientific papers and eight books to his credit, Walford was probably better known for the two-year stint he spent with seven other adventurers in Biosphere 2, a self-contained human terrarium near Tucson.

Walford died Tuesday at UCLA/Santa Monica Hospital of respiratory failure and complications from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Although the causes of ALS are not completely known, Walford attributed his disease to environmental problems suffered during his confinement in Biosphere 2. He believed that his rigorous diet, on which he consumed only 1,600 calories per day, extended his survival after the symptoms of the disease appeared several years ago.

In a career that can only be described as colorful, Walford alternated years of intensive laboratory research on mice with yearlong sabbaticals in which he walked across India in a loincloth measuring the rectal temperatures of holy men, traversed the African continent on foot and lived in Biosphere 2, practicing what he called the Signpost Theory of Life.

"If you spend all your time in the laboratory, as most scientists do, you might spend 35 years in the lab and be very successful and win a Nobel Prize," he told The Times in 2002. "But those 35 years will be just a blur. So I find it useful to punctuate time with dangerous and eccentric activities."

He shaved his head, sported a Salvador Dali mustache and rode a motorcycle, once breaking his leg while attempting a wheelie on Santa Monica Boulevard.

His scientific work began in the 1960s at UCLA when he was exploring the potential links between food and longevity. Working with mice, he found that restricting their caloric intake by about 40% could nearly double their life span -- but only if the diet was started at a very young age and they consumed a nutrient-rich diet that prevented malnutrition.

The diet preserved both physical health and mental agility. He found that a 36-month-old mouse that had been fed the restricted-calorie diet could run a maze with the facility of a normal 6-month-old mouse.

"He was a pioneer in the scientific study of the aging process, someone who rather doggedly pursued it when it was not well-funded and not a particularly popular scientific discipline," said Dr. Alistair Cochran, a pathologist at UCLA.

That seminal work has subsequently been replicated in a variety of species, including primates.

At first, researchers didn't think it would work for older animals, however. When experimenters abruptly switched mice to a low-calorie diet, the animals suffered a variety of adverse effects and their life spans were usually shortened dramatically.

But Walford and then-graduate student Rick Weindruch found that easing the animals into the diet over a two-month period allowed them to live at least 20% longer. That was when Walford decided to undertake the regimen himself.

On a typical day, he had a low-fat milk shake, a banana, some yeast and some berries for breakfast; a large salad for lunch; and fish, a baked sweet potato and some vegetables for dinner. He followed that spartan diet from then on. If he happened to consume a little too much one day, he would eat a little less the next.

Before ALS caught up with him, he stood 5 feet, 8 inches and weighed 134 pounds. He had a bodybuilder's physique, the product of workouts at a local gym.

He got an inadvertent chance to test his theories in humans when he became a member of the Biosphere 2 team. Biosphere 2 -- biosphere 1 being the Earth itself -- was a $150-million, 3-acre, glass-enclosed structure built to determine whether humans could live in a self-sustaining environment on another planet, such as Mars.

Walford, then 67, was by far the oldest member of the team. The next-oldest was 40, and the rest were about 30.

Soon after they were sealed inside in 1991, the group realized that they couldn't grow enough food to provide a normal diet. Walford convinced them to adopt a near-starvation regimen: vegetables and a half-glass of goat's milk every day, meat or fish once a week.

They didn't exactly flourish, but they did get healthier. Men lost nearly 20% of their body weight and women about 10%. Their blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and triglyceride levels all fell by at least 20% to extremely healthy levels. The team members also exhibited an increased capacity to fight off illnesses, such as colds and flu.

But levels of nitrous oxide -- produced by microorganisms in the soil and normally broken down by sunlight -- rose to dangerously high levels, and the crew suffered periods when the oxygen level in the structure was unusually low. Walford later speculated that both problems caused the death of brain cells.

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