Prof Walter Bortz at TCD“The Plasticity of Human Aging” 

Trinity was celebrating the tercentenary of the Medical faculty. Walter Bortz was also thinking in centuries and argued that to live for a century, the trick is not medication but regular demanding physical exercise.

Following the talk there was also a chance to meet and discuss with Professor Bortz in a more congenial setting.

He is the leading US expert on ageing and has preached a fairly simple prescription for most of his career. Both he (now 83) and his wife Ruth are avid marathon runners. He even completed a marathon at University of Limerick during his stay.  Here’s a summary of what I heard.

Walter Bortz: If you’re fit enough you can eat lard”

Walter Bortz had a revelation while still a young doctor. He broke a leg skiing in Vermont. Later, when the cast was removed, he was struck by the contrast. One leg was normal and healthy while the “protected” one was “old, frail and withered”. It led Walter to question why medicine didn’t pay more attention to this simple link between disuse and ageing. In addition to becoming a Professor of Clinical Medicine at Stanford University,he has also written a number of accessible books on the topic including We Live Too Short, Die Too Long and Dare to Be 100, Living Longer for Dummies, and Diabetes Danger.

In the Erwin Schroedinger Lecture Hall in Trinity College Dublin, he argued that we “use it or lose it” and that aging is simple thermodynamics. He believes that medicine has been side-tracked by the wonders of genomics. While genes are undoubtedly important, studies in genetically identical twins show that they only fully account for about 15% of our health fate. We ‘eat the sun’, our energy source, via food. The aging process largely responds to changes in energy flow over time. Exercise is the stimulus for many metabolic pathways. Our bodies are plastic (i.e. can adapt) and will change in response to our activities – “we are what we do”.

And this grows ever more important as we age. “When you are young, fitness is an option. If you are old, it’s an imperative”. In the elderly, the protective effect is tenfold. Prof. Bortz practices what he preaches. Apart from his marathons, he runs over 25km a week.

He believes the health system is selling the wrong product – sickness. He has argued with his local congressman about the allocation of healthcare funding towards keeping people sick rather than incentivizing them to stay well. He would prefer everyone to have an in-built pedometer and argues that failure to obtain a preventive amount of exercise should result in tax penalties. He argues that good maintenance of our bodies should make a 120-year lifespan achievable.

Asked whether he follows a particular diet Prof Bortz replied that “if you’re fit enough you can eat lard!”. In our short discussion afterwards, he admitted that this was merely to emphasize the point. He believes in the importance of real food but it’s important to state his “use it or lose it”argument in plain polemic terms.

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