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Living a longer life: whose advice helps?

For decades, longevity gurus have touted their plans. But have they delivered? Aging experts weigh in.

July 13, 2009|Marnell Jameson

Live a life without frailty and disease, and enjoy lasting youth, both physical and mental. Purveyors of longevity have been cashing in on that promise for centuries -- never mind that not one of the people prescribing a life-extension plan has ever delivered one that worked.

"Longevity gurus share one characteristic," says Jay Olshansky, author of "The Quest for Immortality: Science at the Frontiers of Aging" and a professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health. "Most are dead. And they all died at about the same age and of the same causes as the rest of the population."

Here's a look back at some of the folks who have influenced American views of longevity and related behavior over the last 100 years -- and what our aging experts have to say about their approaches.

Adelle Davis


A food faddist with training, Adelle Davis caught the ear of America with nutrition advice that ranged from sound to harmful. She criticized the food industry for producing poor quality, over-processed and sometimes unsafe food. She also proclaimed that the right amounts of minerals and vitamins could prevent and cure almost every disease and ailment.

She studied nutrition at UC Berkeley, and received a master's degree in biochemistry from USC in 1938. She wrote several books on how to live a long and healthy life, which sold upward of 10 million copies in the 1960s and 1970s, including "Let's Get Well" and "Let's Eat Right to Keep Fit." (1970). Physicians who later investigated her work found that her cited references often bore no support for the claims she made.

She often said she never saw anyone get cancer who drank a quart of milk a day, as she did. She died of bone cancer at age 70.

The verdict: What Davis did right was to help make the public more aware of the nutritional quality and safety of the food they buy. That message has had a lasting influence, said Miriam Nelson, director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition, and associate professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University. "She was really off target, however, by prescribing what vitamins and minerals to take for various problems. That advice was at times harmful, and misconstrued nutrition and took the focus off whole, real food, where it belongs."

Davis left behind a large, devoted and misinformed following.

Jack LaLanne

1914 - **

The father of fitness, Jack LaLanne advocated exercise and weight training long before they were in vogue. He was among the first to encourage women to lift weights -- and to dispel the misconception that it would make them look masculine. He opened his first health spa, in Oakland, in 1936, and later had more than 200 health clubs. For 34 years, from 1951 to 1985, he hosted "The Jack LaLanne Show," a popular TV fitness show that aired throughout the United States and Canada.

At age 42, he set a Guinness world record for fastest completion of of 1,000 push-ups (23 minutes). At age 60, he swam from Alcatraz to Fisherman's Wharf while handcuffed, shackled and towing a 1,000-pound boat.

He has defined age as not being able to do things you used to, saying people can ward off age, reverse it and prolong life through exercise. If exercise can help you do things you haven't been able to do in 10 years, it's rejuvenating, he says. His longevity advice boils down to weight training, aerobic activity, plus a good diet that includes a lot of fruits and vegetables. His book "Revitalize Your Life" touts his "secrets" to reversing aging and living longer, and remains a top seller in its genre. "Live Young Forever," which is due out in September, promises "12 Steps to Optimum Fitness, Health and Longevity."

Today, at 94, LaLanne still works out two hours a day lifting weights and swimming.

The verdict: "I love Jack LaLanne," says Tom Perls, a geriatrician and director of the New England Centenarian Study, "he's living proof of the saying: 'The older you get, the healthier you've been.' "

Adds Olshansky: "He was way ahead of his time. . . . Decades ago, he was onto the most important ways we can influence aging, by exercising and eating fruits and vegetables."

Nathan Pritikin


After being diagnosed with heart disease in the 1950s, Nathan Pritikin, an engineer, got this advice from his doctor: Take it easy, don't overexert yourself and keep eating the American diet of eggs, beef and the like.

He didn't buy it. Instead, he began studying cultures that had low rates of heart disease -- and created his own diet. The resulting Pritikin Program advocated regular exercise and a low-fat, high-fiber diet as a way to improve health, prevent heart attacks and extend life. Pritikin also outspokenly recommended that heart doctors focus more on nutrition and exercise, and less on drugs and surgery. His appearances on CBS' "60 Minutes" in 1977 and 1978 brought this then-new message to the public.

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