cont’d from Part 6

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.

to be cont’d

cont’d from Part 2

Article Originally appeared in the New York Times, March 3, 2011.

by Frank Bruni

… In restaurants Murdock will push the butter dish toward the server and say, “Take the death off the table.” He will ask employees or friends who are putting sugar in coffee or milk in tea why they want to kill themselves and will upbraid people leaving healthful food unfinished about the vitamins they’re squandering.

I experienced this during a visit in early February to his California ranch, where I joined him for lunch: a six-fruit smoothie; a mixed-leaf salad with toasted walnuts, fennel and blood orange; a soup with more than eight vegetables and beans; a sliver of grilled Dover sole on a bed of baby carrots, broccoli and brown rice.

Potrero Road

Potrero Road

“How did you like your soup?”he asked me after one of his household staff members removed it. I said it was just fine.

“Did you eat all your juice?” he added, referring to the broth. I said I had left perhaps an inch of it. He shot me a stern look. “You got a little bit of it,” he said.

“I get a lot — every bit I can.” He shrugged his shoulders. “That’s O.K. You’ll go before me.”

There was dessert, too: flourless cookies made with dark chocolate and walnuts, both rich in antioxidants, and sweetened not with sugar but with honey. He quickly polished one off and then called out to the kitchen to say that he wanted the cookies to make an encore appearance after dinner, so he could have another then. Five minutes later, still cookie-struck, he walked into the kitchen to ask that a few be packed up for him to have handy through the afternoon.

Murdock grew up in the tiny town of Wayne, Ohio, the middle child of three and the only son. He didn’t see much of his father, a traveling salesman with an inconsistent income, but was close to his mother, who took in laundry and scrubbed floors to help make ends meet. He softens when he recalls sitting in her lap while she read to him, a memory that he says hasn’t been dimmed by the length of her absence. She died, from cancer, when she was just 42 and he 17.

By then he was living on his own, having dropped out of school at 14. He has dyslexia, though no one initially realized it, and never managed grades better than D’s. “Everybody laughed at me,” he says. “They thought I was an imbecile.” He traded classwork for changing oil and pumping gas; he
lived in a room above the service station.

When he talks about his childhood, his lack of formal education is one of two themes he brings up again and again, usually to cast it as an inadvertent gift. He says that because he felt the need to compensate for it, he read prodigiously and, he stresses, without the narrowness of focus he notices in many conventionally learned people. Biographies of Andrew Carnegie, Socratic dialogues, Shakespearean sonnets, “The Prince”— he devoured it all over time. He also studied something called brain acceleration, which he says taught him to think about three things at once. “I’ll match wits with anybody,” he says. “I don’t care if they have the top degree in the world.” He notes that everyone on his research campus’s board is a Ph.D. or an M.D. But he, the high-school dropout, presides over the meetings.

The other theme is how low the point from which he rose to riches was. After finishing several years of service in the U.S. Army at age 22, he was not only penniless but also homeless, and slept for a while under a bush in a Detroit park. He would cadge free coffee from a friend employed at a greasy spoon. A man who worked for a loan company met Murdock there, learned that he was a veteran and offered to help.

With the man’s assistance, he rounded up $1,200 in loans and bought that diner, which he whipped into freshly scrubbed, newly painted shape. He sold it a year and a half later for $1,900, spent $75 of the profit on a car, set out for California and stopped along the way in Phoenix, where the opportunity to make money was too good to pass up….

to be cont’d…

Article Originally appeared in the New York Times, March 3, 2011.

by Frank Bruni

One morning in early January, David Murdock awoke to an unsettling sensation. At first he didn’t recognize it and then he couldn’t believe it, because for years – decades, really – he maintained what was, in his immodest estimation, perfect health. But now there was this undeniable imperfection, a scratchiness and swollenness familiar only from the distant past. Incredibly, infuriatingly, he had a sore throat.

“I never have anything go wrong,” he said later.

“Never have a backache. Never have a headache. Never have anything else.”

This would make him a lucky man no matter his age. Because he is 87, it makes him an unusually robust specimen, which is what he must be if he is to defy the odds (and maybe even the gods) and live as long as he intends to. He wants to reach 125, and sees no reason he can’t, provided that he continues eating the way he has for the last quarter century: with a methodical, messianic correctness that he believes can, and will, ward off major disease and minor ailment alike.

David H Murdock

Mr David H. Murdock

So that sore throat wasn’t just an irritant. It was a challenge to the whole gut-centered worldview on which his bid for extreme longevity rests. “I went back in my mind: what am I not eating enough of?” he told me. Definitely not fruits and vegetables: he crams as many as 20 of them, including pulverized banana peels and the ground-up rinds of oranges, into the smoothies he drinks two to three times a day, to keep his body brimming with fiber and vitamins. Probably not protein: he eats plenty of seafood, egg whites, beans and nuts to compensate for his avoidance of dairy, red meat and poultry, which are consigned to a list of forbidden foods that also includes alcohol, sugar and salt.

“I couldn’t figure it out,” he said. So he made a frustrated peace with his malady, which was gone in 36 hours and, he stressed, not all that bad. “I wasn’t really struggling with it,” he said. “But my voice changed a little bit. I always have a powerful voice.” Indeed, he speaks so loudly at times, and in such a declamatory manner, that it cows people, who sometimes assume they’ve angered him. “When I open my mouth,” he noted, “the room rings.”

The room ringing just then was the vast, stately common area of his vast, stately North Carolina lodge, which sits on more than 500 acres of woods and meadows where a flock of rare black Welsh sheep — which he keeps as pets, certainly not as chops and cheese in the making — roam under the protection of four Great Pyrenees dogs. He got the dogs after a donkey and two llamas entrusted with guarding the flock from predators failed at the task. The donkey and llamas still hang out with their fleecy charges, but they are purely ornamental.

North Carolina Research Campus

North Carolina Research Campus

Murdock loves to collect things: animals, orchids, Chippendale mirrors, Czechoslovakian chandeliers. He keeps yet another black Welsh flock at one of his two homes in Southern California, a 2,200-acre ranch whose zoological bounty extends to a herd of longhorn cattle, about 800 koi in a manmade lake and 16 horses — down from a population of more than 550, most of them Arabians, 35 years ago — with their own exercise pool. He has five homes in all, one on the small Hawaiian island of Lanai, which he owns almost in its entirety. He shuttles among them in a private jet. Forbes magazine’s most recent list of the 400 richest Americans put him at No. 130, with an estimated net worth of $2.7 billion, thanks to real estate development and majority stakes in an array of companies, most notably Dole. Five years earlier the estimate was $4.2 billion, but the recession took its toll.

His affluence has enabled him to turn his private fixation on diet and longevity into a public one. I went to see him first in North Carolina in late January. It is there, outside of Charlotte, in a city named Kannapolis near his lodge, that he has spent some $500 million of his fortune in recent years to construct the North Carolina Research Campus, a scientific center dedicated to his conviction that plants, eaten in copious quantities and the right variety, hold the promise of optimal health and maximal life span. The campus is a grand and grandiose sight, a cluster of mammoth Georgian-style buildings that dwarf everything around them. They call to mind an august, aged university, but the brick is without blemish, and there is no ivy.

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