Older people (and those headed in that direction, which is everyone else) are really sold a bill of goods when it comes to health and longevity advice. I’m not a young man anymore, and for decades I’ve been hearing all sorts of input about aging that’s proving to be not just misguided, but downright incorrect. Blatant myths about healthy longevity continue to circulate and misinform millions. Older adults at this very moment are enacting routines detrimental to living long that they think are achieving the opposite. A major impetus for creating the Primal Blueprint was to counter these longevity myths. That mission has never felt more personal.
So today, I’m going to explore and refute a few of these top myths, some of which contain kernels of truth that have been overblown and exaggerated. I’ll explain why.
Obviously, a frail grandfather pushing 100 shouldn’t do Starting Strength right off the bat (or maybe ever, depending on how frail he is). That’s not my contention here. My contention:
Lifting as heavy as you can as safely as you can is essential for healthy longevity. That’s why I put it first in the list today. It’s that important.
For one, lean muscle mass is one of the strongest predictors of resistance to mortality. The more muscle a person has (and the stronger they are), the longer they’ll live—all else being equal. That’s true in both men and women.
One reason is that the stronger you are, the more capable you are. You’re better at taking care of yourself, standing up from chairs, ascending stairs, and maintaining basic functionality as you age.
Another reason is that increased lean mass means greater tissue reserve—you have more organ and muscle to lose as you age, so that when aging-related muscle loss sets in, you have longer to go before it gets serious. And that’s not even a guarantee that you’ll lose any. As long as you’re still lifting heavy things, you probably won’t lose much muscle, if any. Remember: the average old person studied in these papers isn’t doing any kind of strength training at all.
It doesn’t have to be barbells and Olympic lifts and CrossFit. It can be machines (see Body By Science, for example) and bodyweight and hikes. What matters is that you lift intensely (and intense is relative) and safely, with good technique and control.
Animal protein has all sorts of evil stuff, they say.
Methionine—linked to reduced longevity in animal models.
Increased IGF-1—a growth promoter that might promote unwanted growth, like cancer.
Yet, a huge study showed that in older people, those 65 or older, increased animal protein intake actually protected against mortality. The older they were and the more protein they ate, the longer they lived.
Meanwhile, low-protein diets have been shown to have all sorts of effects that spell danger for older people hoping to live long and live well:
And about that “excess methionine” and “increased IGF-1”?
In both human and animal studies, there’s a U-shaped relationship between IGF-1 levels and lifespan. Animal studies show an inverse relationship between IGF-1 and diabetes, heart disease, and heart disease deaths (higher IGF-1, less diabetes/heart disease) and a positive association between IGF-1 and cancer (higher IGF-1, more cancer). A recent review of the animal and human evidence found that while a couple human studies show an inverse relationship between IGF-1 and longevity, several more show a positive relationship—higher IGF-1, longer lifespan—and the majority show no clear relationship at all.
Almost every doctor says this. It’s become an axiom in the world of orthopedics.
But then we see this study showing that people have the same microRNAs that control tissue and limb regeneration in lizards and amphibians. They’re most strongly expressed in the ankle joints, less so in the knees, and even less so at the hip—but they’re there, and they’re active.
I’ve seen some impressive things, have been able to personally verify some stunning “anecdotes” from friends and colleagues who were able to regrow cartilage or at least regain all their joint function after major damage to it. Most doctors and studies never capture these people. If you look at the average older person showing up with worn-down joints and degraded or damaged cartilage, how active are they? What’s their diet?
They are mostly inactive. They are often obese or overweight.
They generally aren’t making bone broth and drinking collagen powder. They aren’t avoiding grains and exposing their nether regions to daily sun. They aren’t doing 200 knee circles a day, performing single leg deadlifts, and hiking up mountains. These are the things that, if anything can, will retain and regrow cartilage. Activity. Letting your body know that you still have need of your ankles, knees, and hips. That you’re still an engaged, active human interacting with the physical world.
This isn’t always bad advice, but retiring and then ceasing all engagement with the outside world will reduce longevity, not increase it. Having a life purpose is essential for living long and living well; not having one is actually an established risk factor for early mortality. And at least when you’re getting up in the morning to go to work, you have a built-in purpose. That purpose may not fulfill your heart and spirit, but it’s a purpose just the same: a reason to get up and keep moving.
Retiring can work. Don’t get me wrong. But the people who retire early and make it work for their health and longevity are staying active. They’re pursuing side projects or even big visions. They have hobbies, friends, and loved ones who they hang out with all the time.
The ones who don’t? Well, they are at at increased risk of dying early.
You don’t have to keep working a job you hate, or even a job you enjoy. You can retire. Just maintain your mission.
As older people, we’re told that sex might be “too strenuous for the heart” (Truth: It’s good for it). We’re told to “take the elevator to save our knees.” They tell us “Oh, don’t get up, I’ll get it for you.”
They don’t tell me that because, well, I’m already up and doing the thing. I’m active and obviously so. I don’t take it easy.
Stay vigorous, friends. Stay vivacious. Don’t be foolhardy, mind you. Be engaged.
“Take it easy” quickly becomes “sit in the easy chair all day long watching the news.” Don’t let it happen.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t rest. Rest is everything. Sleep is important. But you must earn your rest, and when you have the energy, take advantage of it. Don’t rest on your laurels.
As you can see, there are tiny kernels of truth in many of these myths. We should all be careful lifting heavy things and pay close attention to technique and form. Everyone should care for their cartilage and avoid damage to it. No one should continue working a job that sucks their soul and depletes their will to live if they can move on from it. And so on.
What we all need to avoid is sending the message to our brain, body, and cells that we’re done. That we’ve given up and our active, engaged life is effectively over. Because when that happens, it truly is over.
Someone asked me when aging begins. How old is “old”?
I think I know now. Aging begins when you start listening to conventional longevity advice. As I said on Twitter earlier today, healthy aging begins when you do the opposite.
Want more on building a life that will allow you to live well into later decades? I definitely have more on that coming up. A perceptive reader shared the news in one of the Facebook groups already, so let me mention it here. My new book, Keto For Life: Reset Your Biological Clock In 21 Days and Optimize Your Diet For Longevity, is coming out December 31, 2019. I’ll have more info, including a special bonus package for those who preorder, in just a few weeks. In the meantime, you can read more about it here on our publisher’s page.
That’s it for today, friends. Chime in down below about longevity or any other health topics you’re thinking about these days. What are the most egregious aging myths you’ve heard? What do you do instead? Take care.
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Wu C, Odden MC, Fisher GG, Stawski RS. Association of retirement age with mortality: a population-based longitudinal study among older adults in the USA. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2016;70(9):917-23.