Article Originally appeared in the New York Times, March 3, 2011.
by Frank Bruni
Dreamers have pursued longevity — and, in some cases, immortality — in all sorts of wacky and exacting ways, from hyperbaric chambers to cryogenics. And they have sought to fine-tune their bodies with all manner of rigorously proscribed diets: only raw foods; only plants; only the flesh, fruit and nuts that prehistoric humans, not yet wise to agriculture, would have hunted and foraged.
Murdock’s methods are, in that context, utterly mainstream, an example of extraordinary discipline rather than frontier science. Sure, the rinds and peels — which he explains by saying that the parts of fruits most directly sun-kissed are bound to harbor the most energy — may be a little strange. But they’re not dangerous-strange, and a plant-based diet that’s low in animal fat
while still allowing for protein sources beyond legumes has emerged as the consensus recommendation of most medical professionals. Murdock never neglects protein: the breakfast he ate just hours before our lunch included not only a smoothie and 10-grain cereal in almond milk but also a bevy of sardines.
He is careful to get a little bit of daily sun, which is crucial for proper absorption of vitamin D, but not too much, lest he court skin cancer. He tries to go to bed no later than 11 p.m. and to get more than six hours of sleep every night. Perhaps the only real eyebrow raiser in his regimen is his rejection of any medicine that isn’t truly necessary. When he had that sore throat, he didn’t suck on a lozenge or swallow aspirin. When he has had precancerous growths removed from his face, he has passed on anesthetics.
“I just turned my brain on and said, ‘Cut!’ ” he said. “Of course it hurt. But I controlled that.”
The doctors who work with Murdock say that he has ideal blood pressure, clear arteries, good muscle tone. But they doubt that these will carry him to 125. They point out that he didn’t adopt his healthful ways until his 60s, and they note that genes often trump behavior. Although Murdock’s father lived well into his 90s, his mother died young, and his sisters are both dead. The life expectancy for an American man born today is only 75 1/2, and demographic data suggest that an American man who has made it to 87 can expect, on average, another 5 1/4 years. The longest life span on record is 122!, and that belonged to a woman — French, of course — who died in 1997. Her closest male competitors reached only 115 1/2.
As for beating those statistics, “There’s been no documented intervention that has been shown to radically extend duration of life — ever,” says S. Jay Olshansky, an expert on aging who teaches at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Told of Murdock’s health-minded habits, Olshansky said that just about all of them were prudent ways of probably “letting his body live out to its genetic potential,” but added, “He’ll be disappointed when he doesn’t reach 125.”
Robert Califf, a Duke University cardiologist who sits on the research campus board, says that even Murdock’s laudable diet isn’t a provable longevity booster. “You can do short-term studies that give you a lot of information about biology,” Califf says. “But knowing whether eating a food actually causes you to live longer than not eating that food: the answer to that will only come with a study of an entire generation.”
If he could live to 125, why he would want to? More than his hearing will ebb. He may never find the right companion for the long fade-out. Although he says that he’d ideally like to marry again, he acknowledges that few women are suited to his degree of autonomy and wanderlust.
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