I moved to Pittsburgh about three years ago. “The Burgh,” as locals call it, is both the city of champions and where I grew up. Since few people actually lived downtown thirty-five years ago, I was raised a short drive from the city in a small suburb. Since moving back, I have had the opportunity to spend extended periods of time socializing with some of my close friends and family – something that was rare during my time in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. I also continually find myself bumping into the people from my childhood that I was hoping never to see again, but that’s the price I pay for living close to home.
Perhaps the most important local person in my life lives about 30 minutes from my apartment and only a short walk from the home where I was raised. Moving home has made me lucky enough to spend a day or two per week with him. I often help him with yard work, heavy lifting, and those rare two-man jobs that he cannot handle on his own. That being said, he mostly takes care of all the chores on his own, as he has since the day he bought his house and yard.
He cuts his grass and recently replaced his mailbox, which consisted of removing the last one, digging up the concrete anchor, and stabilizing the new mailbox in concrete. This took him about three hours – in the 90-degree heat. If the mailbox replacement was not daunting enough, he also recently replaced all of his basement windows with glass blocks, a task that involved mobilizing several hundred pounds of material.
I once even saw him strangle a grizzly bear with his bare hands. Well, not literally, as he reads a lot of books and recently finished an 800-page bear on the Italian Renaissance that was a gift from me and my brother – a grizzly if I have ever seen one. He told me he read it all but did not make it past ten pages at a time without falling asleep – not an insignificant accomplishment for someone with no formal education raised in a poor household during the Depression. While I help him with some yardwork, he helps me as I try to be a modern-day hunter-gatherer by growing vegetables in his organic garden and allowing me to “gather” them. This garden has also supplied my family with delicious and nutrient-dense vegetables throughout my life.
Oh, and I forgot to mention, he is 96 years old.
Chewing the Fat – The Benefits of Conversing on Cognition
I remember the day my grandfather called me and asked if I wanted to come over and “chew the fat.” It was shortly after I moved back to the Burgh and was a typical hot and humid day in August. As part of my typical Saturday routine, I sat down to write after I had just finished my backyard workout regimen: ten sets of ten kettle bell swings, deadlifts in the grass, and mobility exercises, topped off with wheelbarrow pushes for dessert. Little did he know, I was actually writing my weekly health article about longevity, and he was the main topic. While I enjoyed the content of our frequent mentally stimulating conversations, I spent the majority of these talks marveling at his remarkable longevity; he was not only alive at 96 – a feat in itself – but he was healthy and actually thriving as he cruised through his tenth decade on the planet with activity levels that would crush those of an average American in his forties. I could not possibly ask him enough questions about his daily activities, foods, and other habits as it is not often that we have access to a perfectly healthy and active 96-year-old able to pass on nearly a century of longevity knowledge. As America’s health continues to worsen and survival rates are predicted to fall in the generations to come, opportunities like this may be hard to come by in the future.
Yet, perhaps he was supplying me the answer to my article. Perhaps both literally and figuratively “chewing the fat” is one major way to maximize longevity and live as long, healthy, and happy as possible. We have spent countless hours chewing the fat, discussing everything from gardening, cooking, the Great Depression, and growing up the child of Austrian immigrants in the early 1900s. He has read many books on every topic imaginable, and as a result, we never had a dull dinner table conversation. Boiling down to it, it is no wonder how he remains so cognitively intact as he rounds a century on this planet.
Studies show that he unknowingly has self-prescribed an enormously successful method of longevity – the preservation of cognitive and functional ability.1 As we age, sit at a desk at our nine-to-five office enslavement, have children, retire, and watch our energy levels decline before our very eyes, opportunities for cognitive and physical stimulation decrease significantly. Opportunities to converse, stimulate cognition, and exercise the mind – once nearly unavoidable aspects of daily life – dwindle and leave us as prototypical Americans that spend the vast majority of the week sedentary with minimal mental stimulation. The brainless and interchangeable time sinks of the nightly news (or the even worse local news), the latest sitcom, or the most recent reality television show fill our evenings, yet provide no mental or physical stimulus and work only to erase valuable hours of the day that can be spent in inspiring and rewarding activities like growing a garden, reading an interesting book, or taking a healthy walk through nature. As traditionally social and physically active beings, the innate flame passed to human beings by our ancestors yearns for such activities, but unfortunately more often finds itself extinguished by the many physically and mentally sedentary activities of our modern society.
Chewing the Fat in 3 Steps
Watching my grandfather’s typical day consist of a whirlwind of intermingled physical and mental activity was more than a strong reminder to avoid the allure of unrewarding activities that become addictive as they simulataneously fill many American households nowadays. The long-lasting benefits of stimulating our minds and improving our cognition are well-known within the scientific world, which is why gimmicky mental exercise products like Lumosity are becoming more common.
However, in John Reichl’s case, a gimmick-less and strong stimulation of function and cognition on a daily basis is a major reason why he was still “chewing the fat” at age 96. Books are great ways to provide knowledge while rewarding us with a feeling of accomplishment. Yet, alternating between intense cognitive stimulation from reading a book on the Italian Renaissance, intense physical stimulation from lifting hundreds of pounds during a project, and unintense mental and meditative stimulation from managing a massive garden provides unquantifiable benefits. Perhaps my curiosity over the reason for his longevity is no secret after all.
Chewing the Fat Step 1 – Work Hard (Physically and Mentally)
Studies in both mice and humans reveal that resistance training achieved with running over a short distance improves hippocampal functioning.2 A vital component of the brain, the hippocampus serves as a major center of cognition and functioning. A combination of mental stimulation and exercise provides a one-two punch to increase the efficiency of the brain’s cognition center. These studies also reveal that resistance training signals to the brain to produce brain-derived neurotrophic factor, also known as BDNF. BDNF is like a mixture of gasoline and fertilizer for the brain.
BDNF is an immensely important chemical for many reasons. First and foremost, it proved wrong the many scientists who believed for decades and centuries that the brain is unable to generate new cells or neurons, leaving many active individuals encouraged and excited as this provides us the keys to “exercise” our brains to health, even at a ripe old age.
BDNF also helps us to perform better on spatial memory tests.3
What this means is that physical activity can directly make us smarter and help to regenerate our brain’s cells. In other words, stimulating the brain through mental activities is seemingly aided by stimulating the brain through physical activities. These benefits are not reserved for the elderly, as recent studies in school aged children reveal that intermixing physical activity with their studies significantly improves learning.4 Physical fitness actually predicts math and reading scores on standardized tests in middle schoolers.5 Fit kids seem to learn faster as well.6 Now imagine what happens if we intermix a lifetime – or almost ten decades – of exercise with mental stimulation. Apparently you end up reading a book on the Italian Renaissance at age 96…
Finally, exercise simply pumps more blood to the brain. The increased blood is accompanied by oxygen and other vital nutrients and we are left with a brain cortex with improved blood flow and more efficient vascular plumbing.7 Priming the brain with exercise and then following with mental stimulation is a prudent strategy to maximize brain proficiency.
Working Hard in Nature
While he engaged in weight training in his basement until his mid-eighties, the vast majority of John’s activity took place in nature. He never even entered a gym throughout his life. In fact, gyms did not even exist for his first forty years or so. All activity and work was done at home, and most consisted of yardwork and upkeep including chopping wood, planting vegetables, mowing the lawn, and pushing wheelbarrows.
In other words, his days consisted of lifting, walking, carrying, and even some sprinting. Interestingly, this sounds quite similar to Dr. Kim Hill’s description of the Ache people, who were modern hunter-gatherers that he studied for decades in the jungles of Paraguay. He noted that “they sprint, jog, climb, carry, jump, etc. all day long.”8,9 Perhaps such an exercise and activity pattern reignites that often extinguished innate flame passed to us by our ancestors, and perhaps these activities ignite some longevity genes along the way. Not surprisingly, studies do reveal enhanced benefits from our interactions with nature.10
A humorous story about my grandfather and his pursuit for constant mental stimulation involves a time when my grandmother had to be rushed to the hospital for chest pain, which eventually proved to be a serious cardiac issue. My entire family was emotionally distraught as she was being evaluated by the attending physician. After she was admitted to the hospital in stable condition and things settled down, we found my grandfather frantically searching the hospital for a newspaper or financial journal. After some questioning, we found out he was playing the stock market and he wanted to check on his “stocks” – and by stocks I mean his imaginary stocks. At age ninety-two and no actual money invested into the stock market (he had no excessive amounts of money to invest) he was merely pretending he was investing and followed these stocks daily to assess his financial ability. While he felt as though he was too old to gamble his lifesavings in the market, he could at least test his financial skillset
Chewing the Fat Step 2 – Know How to Turn It Off and Socialize
While he never actually meditated for all I know, I would often catch him sitting on the porch watching nature or even sitting in the dark in silence (which seemed strange to me as a child). After his intense projects, he would enter an almost trancelike state as he unwound for the day. While this was not meditation as we know it, it was clearly a state of being in relaxation that your highest yogi aims for.
For those of you like me, meditation or relaxation does not come easily. I have difficulty if I am not engaging in some activity at all times, let alone sitting still. Yet, there are clear examples of “meditative moments” that can be included in our daily regimens to force relaxation and meditative activity that helps with mental recovery. Just as the body requires rest and repair after intense physical activity, so does our brain after intense cognitive activities. We now know that one major benefit of restful sleep is to clear metabolic waste products from the brain,11 yet, similar data from the 1970s reveals that meditation clears our body’s waste products as well.12
His top activities that force reflection and meditation:
- Managing a garden
- Reading books
- Cutting the grass interchanged with a small drink of alcohol. (He may be one of the few remaining people to drink the short, chubby, half cans of beer. Budweiser may have even made them specifically for him).
- Socializing with family
- Sitting in nature
John spent countless hours manning his organic garden, providing him mental reprieve and the rest of us delicious vegetables. The benefits of growing a garden never cease to end. The benefits of a relaxing and meditative hobby that takes skill and provides a final product that nurtures your body and health may be one of the most fulfilling activities available. It is not surprising that that while both gardening and reading books have a healthy effect by lowering the stress hormone cortisol, gardening has a significantly larger effect.13 Other studies confirm this relationship, showing that while indoor activities are healthy, gardening still reigns supreme at fighting stress and cultivating healthy aging.14
When cutting the grass, he took time to enjoy life in-between by enjoying a beer or nice glass of wine on his porch. He would do so for only ten or twenty minutes while staring off into nature and then continue with his yardwork. He learned to balance relaxation and hard work better than anyone I have ever encountered. This may be his most important lesson.
Finally, his interest in socializing is the ultimate form of relaxation while channeling our innate nature to desire connections with other individuals. Conversing for hours at dinner with delicious food and wine was commonplace.
As Oscar Wilde once said:
“After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.”
Chewing the Fat Step 3 – Chew the Fat…
About to turn ninety-seven, John Reichl recalls his days of using lard and butter for cooking, and the times when he even ate pure lard during the Great Depression. Throughout his life, his food consisted mostly of home cooked meals and home-grown vegetables from his organic garden – not certified of course, but perhaps the traditional definition of organic. Processed foods, TV dinners, and premade meals did not exist. Furthermore, they were considered an insult to his wife – the greatest Italian cook in the world* – and her traditional Southern Italian cuisine. Candy and sweets were a rarity and meals consisted mostly of vegetables cooked in fat and a portion of meat or fish. A piece of bread did accompany many meals, especially during the 1930s and before the war when money was tight. Overflowing bread baskets and pasta, which many falsely describe as part of the Mediterranean diet, were not present.
*This has been verified.
Has this lifestyle helped lead to his longevity?
The short answer is yes, but the more important question is how? Growing one’s own vegetables and eating real, whole foods is a major contributor to optimal health, as is stimulating the brain and having meaningful relationships with those around us. But on a biological level, what is the physiologic response of chewing the fat?
What he was doing – unintentionally of course – was limiting the amount of insulin released in his body and channeling the internal mechanisms that have been developed over millions of years to allow humans to remain healthy and live and thrive to a ripe old age. With a diet of real food and minimal amounts of processed carbohydrates, our blood rarely sees an influx of excessive sugar. This physiologic state was molded by hundreds of thousands of years of the human diet, which generally consisted of more fat and less carbohydrates than most people consume nowadays. As one eats an overabundance of carbohydrates, insulin rises, binding to specific cellular receptors and activating molecular pathways, leading to fat stimulation, cancer growth, neurologic damage, and cells “burning out” sooner than they should.
Recent studies have looked at people like my grandfather – those who lived past 100 years – to assess what is different about these individuals from the rest of us mere mortals. One characteristic that these centenarians have in common is a frequent mutation in the IGF receptor along the insulin pathway.15 In simpler terms, what this means is that excess insulin or IGF floating around in the blood has nowhere to bind. As a result, less of their cells are told to grow, get fat, turn to cancer, and burn out by insulin and IGF. It is even possible that if these individuals were eating a higher amount of carbohydrates than their bodies were adept at processing, this broken point along the insulin pathway may not experience the same damaging effects of too much insulin as you and I, leaving us with higher rates of cancer, obesity, and poor overall health.
Unfortunately, most of us should assume we do not have this insulin pathway mutation, so we need to turn to other methods to keep insulin levels low. The easiest method is of course to limit the food that directly stimulates it, i.e. replace those sugars and simple carbohydrates with the food that nourishes us without skyrocketing our blood sugar and insulin. The easiest method is by chewing the fat. Protein stimulates this pathway as well – though to a lesser extent – and this is why we do not want to chew on skinless chicken breasts like some would lead us to believe. This is good news for those who want to live as long as possible, but also want to be happy during the process (skinless chicken may be the worst, least flavorful food on the planet).
Striking a balance will be different for everyone, but my approach has been one of limiting my overconsumption of carbohydrates, going into periodic ketosis (very low carbohydrate consumption or fasting), and engaging in periods without any food, known as intermittent fasting, as it has shown to increase lifespan in all species except monkeys and humans (yet)16 and is also a good method to help the body rid itself of cancerous cells.17 This generally leaves me happy enough with my meal choices, while minimizing the insulin pathway and hopefully decreasing my chances of cancer and other health issues.
Jeanne Calment – Chewing the fat until 122
Turning to Jeanne Calment, who was the longest living human ever at 122 years, she seemed to have her own rules. She met Vincent Van Gogh at age 13 and said he was “dirty, badly dressed and disagreeable.” According to Wikipedia, “Calment ascribed her longevity and relatively youthful appearance for her age to a diet rich in olive oil, and rubbed onto her skin, as well as port wine, and ate nearly one kilogram (2.2 lb) of chocolate every week.” Assuming this chocolate was 85% dark; perhaps this diet isn’t too far off. Then again, I love dark chocolate.
Returning to the centenarian study, we must keep in mind that these individuals with incredible longevity had genetic mutations in their IGF-1 signaling pathway. And when looking at Jeanne Calment, she smoked until she was 117 and likely had some unique genetics pushing her along to keep her alive to nearly triple her life expectancy at birth.
While Calment is a great n=1 example, perhaps we should turn to the experts for similar advice:
Cynthia Kenyon is a Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics, an American Cancer Society Professor, and director of the Hillblom Center for the Biology of Aging at University of California San Francisco. She knows a thing or two about longevity and has worked extensively with longevity and telomeres – the caps at the end of our chromosomes that are affected by aging – and not surprisingly, she has a similar outlook on what it takes to “live forever.” From a recent article in PLOS Biology, “In Methuselah’s Mould”,18 Kenyon was quoted:
“Nevertheless, the discoveries about the role of the insulin/IGF-1 pathway in ageing have had a profound impact on her own lifestyle, which includes a tendency to discard the bread from sandwiches and eat only the toppings of pizzas. ‘I’m on a low-carb diet. I gave my worms glucose, and it shortened their lifespan. [The diet] makes sense because it keeps your insulin levels down.’
No desserts. No sweets. No potatoes. No rice. No bread. No pasta. ‘When I say ‘no,’ I mean ‘no, or not much,’ she notes. ‘Instead, eat green vegetables. Eat the fruits that aren’t the sweet fruits, like melon.’ Bananas? “Bananas are a little sweet.’ Meat? ‘Meat, yes, of course. Avocados. All vegetables. Nuts. Fish. Chicken. That’s what I eat. Cheese. Eggs. And one glass of red wine a day.”
Kenyon’s antiaging diet revolves around chewing the fat. With decades of research under Kenyon’s belt and almost 97 years of personal experience under John Reichl’s, perhaps these two have learned a thing or two about longevity.
Want to maximize your chances of living forever?
Maybe it’s time to start chewing the fat.
Go Forth and Chew the Fat
What can I learn from a hilarious and interesting 96-year-old whom I am lucky enough to “chew the fat” with on a weekly basis? Acute stress via exercise, intense mental stimulation, and activity-based projects is the key to a healthy brain into one’s 90s. Yet, it is just as important to intermix these activities with meditative-like periods to rest the brain and allow it to recover and rebuild.
Eat real food and healthy fats.
Get outside and enjoy nature.
Rest and relax and socialize with your family.
The answers do not seem that difficult after all. The simple gesture in his phone call was spot-on. Chewing the fat may help you to live as long and healthy as possible.
Chewing the Fat – Afterthought
This article was actually originally written and posted in 2014, shortly after my move to Pittsburgh. Prior to the publication, my grandfather called to tell me “time has finally caught up with me, and this time I am not getting away.” The weeks prior to this he started to slow somewhat and made frequent comments the he felt his time was near. He told us he wanted to go peacefully and did not want anything done to keep him alive. He was a third of the way into Steve Jobs’ biography and was shoveling snow in the driveway the week before, so it was tough to believe him. He also had his spring seed orders scattered over the dining room table for preparation for his garden.
The following day over breakfast, he looked up at his wife of 67 years and asked her “what are we still doing here?” He followed that it was finally time and he wanted to go in his sleep. He went to bed that night following his normal routine. He never woke up the next morning and went into a coma.
I rushed from work to the hospital to withdraw all care and follow his wishes. Though unconscious and on morphine, he stayed alive for 36 hours. He passed away 20 minutes past midnight, which happened to be just after my sister arrived at the hospital room. She traveled over nineteen hours from China to see him. It was also his wife’s 92nd birthday.
My grandfather called the shots in his life, right up to his dying day. Not many people can choose to die healthy, without suffering, and in their sleep – especially at age 96. I doubt that I will be this fortunate, but I will continue to follow his lifestyle lessons and the knowledge he imparted on me
I will try my best to remember to chew the fat.
And I hope you will too.
- Schupf, N. et al. Preservation of cognitive and functional ability as markers of longevity. Neurobiol. Aging 25, 1231–1240 (2004).
- Lee, M. C. et al. Voluntary resistance running with short distance enhances spatial memory related to hippocampal BDNF signaling. J. Appl. Physiol. 113, 1260–1266 (2012).
- Griffin, É. W. et al. Aerobic exercise improves hippocampal function and increases BDNF in the serum of young adult males. Physiol. Behav. 104, 934–941 (2011).
- Singh, A., Uijtdewilligen, L., Twisk, J. W. R., van Mechelen, W. & Chinapaw, M. J. M. Physical activity and performance at school: a systematic review of the literature including a methodological quality assessment. Arch. Pediatr. Adolesc. Med. 166, 49–55 (2012).
- Rauner, R. R., Walters, R. W., Avery, M. & Wanser, T. J. Evidence that aerobic fitness is more salient than weight status in predicting standardized math and reading outcomes in fourth- through eighth-grade students. J. Pediatr. 163, 344–8 (2013).
- Raine, L. B. et al. The influence of childhood aerobic fitness on learning and memory. PLoS One 8, e72666 (2013).
- Rhyu, I. J. et al. Effects of aerobic exercise training on cognitive function and cortical vascularity in monkeys. Neuroscience 167, 1239–48 (2010).
- Walker, R. & Hill, K. Modeling growth and senescence in physical performance among the ache of eastern paraguay. Am. J. Hum. Biol. 15, 196–208 (2003).
- Hill, K., Kaplan, H., Hawkes, K. & Hurtado, A. Men’s time allocation to subsistence work among the Ache of Eastern Paraguay. Hum. Ecol. 13, 29–47 (1985).
- Berman, M. G., Jonides, J. & Kaplan, S. The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature. Psychol. Sci. 19, 1207–1212 (2008).
- Xie, L. et al. Sleep drives metabolite clearance from the adult brain. Science 342, 373–7 (2013).
- Lang, R., Dehof, K., Meurer, K. A. & Kaufmann, W. Sympathetic activity and transcendental meditation. J. Neural Transm. 44, 117–135 (1979).
- Van Den Berg, A. E. & Custers, M. H. G. Gardening promotes neuroendocrine and affective restoration from stress. J. Health Psychol. 16, 3–11 (2011).
- Hawkins, J. L., Thirlaway, K. J., Backx, K. & Clayton, D. A. Allotment Gardening and Other Leisure Activities for Stress Reduction and Healthy Aging. Horttechnology 21, 577–585 (2011).
- Suh, Y. et al. Functionally significant insulin-like growth factor I receptor mutations in centenarians. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 105, 3438–3442 (2008).
- Champ, C. E. et al. Nutrient Restriction and Radiation Therapy for Cancer Treatment: When Less Is More. Oncologist 18, 97–103 (2013).
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