Sunday, July 26, 2009

The fountain of youth revisited

Not too long ago, I wrote about my love of brownies and an article on caloric restriction. I wasn’t really planning on bringing up this topic again so soon but a recent Science paper on caloric restriction in monkeys is getting so much media attention that I just had to throw in my two cents.

In the article, a group of American researchers study control and calorie-restricted (30%) monkeys over 20 years. What they show is that the calorie-restricted monkeys have a reduced incidence of age-associated death, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and brain atrophy compared to the control monkeys. From the sounds of it, we can stop looking for the fountain of youth (it’s in Florida, by the way). The media absolutely loves this story, and news reports and videos are quick to claim that caloric restriction increases longevity in our closest cousins, and it must be good for us as well.

First, a disclaimer from the friendly folks at In the recent years, solid, convincing and well-controlled studies have shown some benefits of caloric restriction in various types of experimental subjects ranging from yeasts to humans. I won’t go back into the pros and cons of caloric restriction in this post. There is good evidence out there that it can be beneficial in some instances, and also good evidence that it’s not for everyone.That being said, I believe there are many problems with this particular Science paper on caloric restriction.

In my opinion, a major issue with the findings is that the control monkeys (the ones not on caloric restriction) are fed ad libitum (meaning they can eat as much as they want). You might be able to guess the problem already, but let me give you an example just in case: I have a cat, and if I were to offer him a constant supply of what seems to me like gross, bland cat food, he would keep eating it until he would slip in a food coma. I think this goes for most species, including us (ever heard of the candy jar experiment?). Therefore, it’s very hard to judge if monkeys who eat as much as they want are eating the amount of food they should naturally be eating. Chances are they are eating more (breakfast, lunch and dinner are not served at regular hours in the wild). And this is particularly relevant because eating too much (or obesity) happens to be an important risk factor for all the diseases the study looks at (diabetes, cardiovascular problems, cancer, etc.).

Another issue with the article is that few of the findings show a statistically significant difference between the control and the calorie restricted groups, even though the researchers are studying a reasonably large number of monkeys. When your results are statistically significant, it means that what you are observing is unlikely to have occurred by chance. This concept is a hallmark of solid and convincing science findings and the media should be very careful not to hype findings that aren’t statistically significant. In addition, almost every single news article on this publication claimed that caloric restriction had an effect on longevity. While the study looks at age-associated diseases, the longevity (or life expectancy) parameter is not assessed at all (though the researchers do mention they plan on assessing this in the future).

Lastly, and perhaps most disturbing from my scientist point of view, the lead researcher in this study happens to be co-founder and member of the board of LifeGen Technologies, a company focusing on the impact of dietary interventions on the aging process. A little research on this company made it very clear to me that the more people buy this whole caloric restriction business, the more money the company makes. If that’s not a conflict of interest, I don’t know what is.

Now if you’ll excuse me, a new cupcake store just opened across from my building, and I must significantly increase the quality of my life by going over and eating a cupcake.

My cat, Mr Minou, is not a fan of caloric restriction.

Reference: Caloric restriction delays disease onset and mortality in rhesus monkeys. Colman RJ, Anderson RM, Johnson SC, Kastman EK, Kosmatka KJ, Beasley TM, Allison DB, Cruzen C, Simmons HA, Kemnitz JW, Weindruch R. Science. 2009 Jul 10;325(5937):201-4.

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