• Red wine, chocolate and exercise could help prolong life

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  • According to the Bible, Methuselah lived to the ripe old age of 969. The modern record for longevity is held by Jeanne Calment of Arles, France. Born Feb. 21, 1875, she died 122 years and five months later in August 1997.
    The average life expectancy for American men born in 2005 is 75.2 years, 80.4 for women, according the Center for Disease Control. So few of us can expect to live nearly as long as Calment did.
    But if we follow the advice and example of two prominent physicians at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, we could expect to add 10 to 15 years to the average life span.
    Dr. Joseph Maroon, 68, is vice chairman of neurological surgery at UPMC, the team neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and a triathlete who has completed the Ironman in Hawaii (2.4-mile ocean swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26.2-mile run) twice, most recently last October.
    Dr. Vonda Wright is an orthopedic surgeon and the director of the Performance and Research Initiative for Masters Athletes at UPMC's Center for Sports Medicine. She's run the Chicago Marathon three times, and competes frequently in shorter races.
    Maroon and Wright have written books describing how we can live longer -- or at least healthier -- lives. In "The Longevity Factor," Maroon explains how substances in certain foods trigger a specific set of genes in humans that make us healthier and cause us to live longer. "In Fitness After 40," Wright explains why exercise is so important for warding off disease, describes simple exercises that anyone can do at home without special equipment, and has special advice for arthritis sufferers.
    About 30 percent of longevity is determined by our genetic makeup, and we are genetically programmed to wear out after a time, Maroon said. But about 70 percent of what we regard as aging is determined by our eating and exercise habits.
    "Your body will change because of the biology of aging, but without the devastating factor of disuse, we are capable of remaining amazingly fast and functional as we age," Wright said. "Many of the changes popularly associated with aging are less the result of biology and more the result of the lifestyle choices you make as you grow older."
    A few good habits can overcome some bad ones. Calment attributed her long life and good health to her habit of taking long walks virtually every day, and drinking a glass or two of red wine each night. She rode a bicycle until she was 100.But Calment also smoked until she was 117, and consumed two pounds of chocolate a week.
    Maroon discusses the "French paradox" in his book. The French consume considerably more fat in their diets than we do, yet suffer heart attacks at half the rates Americans do, and have far fewer obese people.
    The right kind of chocolate (in smaller amounts than Calment consumed) can be good for you, Maroon said. But what was especially beneficial was the red wine. It contains a substance called resveratrol, which triggers genes in humans that promote survival. His research has led him to drink a glass or two of red wine each day. But the limit should be two glasses for the typical man, one for the typical woman, he cautioned. If you drink more than that, the detrimental effects of the alcohol overwhelm the beneficial effects of resveratrol.
    "We're talking about the compression of morbidity," Maroon said. "We want you to live well, long, and to die quickly."