Staying Alive

When Roy Walford was just a boy, he figured out that science could fix his biggest complaint: Life is too short.

By Gary Taubes and David Fukumoto
Feb 1, 2000 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:07 AM


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Venice, California, is as good a place as any to stay young forever. The sun shines 11 months a year, the temperature never strays too far from perfect, and the famous (or infamous) boardwalk is home to more than its share of eccentrics, surfers, bikini-clad roller skaters, and body worshipers. Roy Walford, professor emeritus of pathology at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine, would have to be considered one of the eccentrics, although he manages to stand out even among the denizens of Venice Beach.

 Walford lives in a one-story, redbrick industrial building, one block from the beach. The windows are boarded over. The entrance is in back, off an alleyway, through a wrought-iron gate. Inside, Walford waits behind his desk with a shaved head and a dramatic Fu Manchu mustache of the kind more commonly seen adorning the members of outlaw motorcycle gangs than scientists.

 For Walford to seem out of character is hardly new. This is not a person who has led the closeted life of an academic or buried himself in a laboratory, despite the obsession with which he has pursued his science. For the better part of 50 years he has dedicated his life and his research to the belief that threescore years and fifteen is woefully short for a human life span and that we should all live decades longer. And he’s had some success. His most important work has focused on the relationship between eating and longevity. In a seminal series of experiments beginning in the 1960s, Walford studied the effect of depriving laboratory mice of calories and discovered that the less they ate—within reason—the longer they lived. The research convinced him that it might be worthwhile to apply the same lessons to himself. So since the early 1980s, he has followed what he describes as a near-starvation diet. Walford believes that his diet of a mere 1,600 or so calories a day—about a third to a half less than a man his size would normally consume—will give him the best possible chance of living to 120.

And this is where the problem comes in. Here Walford sits at age 75, still doing research, working on half a dozen projects simultaneously, and yet he finds it difficult to walk. A chronic nerve disorder he picked up nearly 10 years ago as a volunteer guinea pig in a surreal ecosystem experiment makes living to 120 seem an even more ludicrous goal than it was back when he was able to walk normally.

While Walford’s condition has impaired his balance and his mobility, his will seems unaffected: “I have to try to walk consciously instead of unconsciously. Conscious walking means you balance on one foot and then the other and you fall forward.” He says this quietly, with precise, controlled gestures, as if saving energy for the next decade. As one might expect of a man with this kind of willpower, he is thin. But at 5 feet 8 inches and 134 pounds—some 15 pounds less than he weighed as a college wrestler—he still has a muscular physique, the product of every-other-day weight workouts at a local gym. And his nerve condition has certainly not kept him from his goal of understanding aging. He visits his ucla laboratory a few times a week to work on a “crucial experiment” he hopes will give him an immunological answer to postponing the toll of time.

Walford’s new research is based on the fact that in mice and humans, the immune system malfunctions during aging, losing the ability to distinguish between healthy cells and invasive pathogens such as bacteria and viruses. Eventually the system begins to mount so-called autoimmune attacks against the body itself. Walford has long theorized that this is a root cause of the regrettable side effects of aging, and he still hopes to find out if he’s right. To test the theory, he is raising mice with defective immune systems in an ultraclean environment. “In a normal environment, they’d just die of infection,” he says. “But I want to see if they have correspondingly less autoimmunity and how that influences their survival in a world without pathogens.”

If the mice live longer, Walford will have provided formidable support to his immunological theory of aging, which might have dramatic benefits for future generations. After all, as he has pointed out, if human aging were completely preventable, and disease eradicated, the average life span might be about 300 years. Everyone would eventually die from accidents, but those who are lucky might live to be 600.

Even as a youngster, Walford considered life entirely too full of opportunities to imagine their fitting into one life span. He grew up in San Diego, the son of a career naval officer. He was the top student in his high-school class, as well as a first-rate gymnast, wrestler and jitterbug dancer. At 17 he announced in an article for his school newspaper that the human life span was unacceptably short. As an undergraduate at the California Institute of Technology, he thought about studying philosophy, physics, and mathematics, but settled on premed. “We used to joke that together we would conquer three great challenges: space, time, and death,” says his Caltech roommate, Al Hibbs, now a retired nasa space scientist. “I was supposed to conquer space, Roy was supposed to conquer death; together we would build a time machine. They were young men’s fantasies, but he got interested in them seriously.”

After graduation, both Hibbs and Walford went to the University of Chicago—Walford for his medical degree, Hibbs for a master’s degree in mathematics. There, Walford became involved in theater and wrote his own comedic adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. He picked up spare cash performing in a balancing act, in which he was held aloft by a biologist-cum-weight lifter. Before earning his M.D. in 1948, he began practicing what he later dubbed his theory of signposts. The essence of the theory is that life will become an unmemorable blur unless people engage occasionally in what Walford describes as “rather crazy” activities, which act as signposts marking the passage of the years. In this case, he and Hibbs made plans to sail around the world. They lacked only the boat and the money to buy it with. So they decided to play roulette.

“We figured the only way of getting money without having to work at it was either to rob a bank or win at the casinos,” says Hibbs. The two analyzed roulette tables, with the knowledge that the tables aren’t mathematically perfect. “Some numbers come up more often than they should,” says Walford. They raked in $6,000 in Reno and $30,000 in Las Vegas, an achievement heralded by Life magazine in an article headlined “Two Student Theoreticians Invent System for Beating Roulette Wheel.” Then they bought a yacht and set off on their sailing adventure.

The plan was to cover the day-to-day expenses for the trip by writing for Science Illustrated magazine. But the magazine folded and, after 18 months of sailing, the duo found themselves stranded in the Caribbean. So Hibbs eventually returned to Caltech for his Ph.D., and Walford headed to Panama for his medical internship. Following two years at a veterans affairs hospital in Los Angeles and another two at an Air Force pathology laboratory in Illinois, Walford joined the medical faculty of ucla in 1954 and began delving into the aging process.

Working with mice in the laboratory, he quickly realized the benefits of the mantra of caloric restriction research: undernutrition without malnutrition. The maximum life span of a typical lab mouse is 39 months, corresponding to 110 years in humans. Walford and researchers have demonstrated that mice that eat only 60 percent of their preferred diet will live as long as 56 months—the equivalent of 165 human years—provided they start their diets before three months of age. Although these mice are smaller than their normally fed peers, they seem to retain their youthfulness and intellects well into their extended old age. “We’ve found that a 36-month-old restricted mouse will run a maze with the same facility as a six-month-old normally fed mouse,” Walford says. “That’s a substantial preservation of intellectual function.” 

Walford’s dream of extending his own life span became more tangible in the early 1980s, when he and his then-student Rick Weindruch demonstrated that middle-aged mice could also benefit from caloric restriction. Up to that point, says Weindruch, now at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, experiments by other researchers had involved sudden caloric restrictions of obese young mice. One day the mice ate to their hearts’ content; the next day they were on a strict diet. The results, as often as not, were prematurely dead mice. Weindruch and Walford took year-old mice and over the course of two months eased them into a restricted-calorie diet. The mice lived up to 20 percent longer than their peers. The work persuaded Walford to severely cut his own caloric intake. “Roy was toying with the idea before,” says Weindruch. “This made him serious.”

Walford has kept to his starvation diet for nearly 20 years. On a typical day, he has a low-fat milkshake, a banana, some yeast, and some berries for breakfast. Lunch is a large vegetable salad, and dinner is fish, a baked sweet potato, and vegetables. His daily calorie count comes to about half the 3,000 calories per day many Americans eat. Even Hibbs lacks the wherewithal to try such an extreme diet. “It’s just very difficult,” he says. “Damn few people, including me, are willing to put up with it.”

The paradoxical aspect of Walford’s theory of signposts is that some of them seem preordained to get in the way of his personal pursuit of longevity. At age 48, for example, he decided the time had come to attempt a wheelie on his motorcycle while driving down Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. He broke both his motorcycle and his leg when the former fell on top of the latter. Two years later, he took a sabbatical from ucla to spend a year walking across India in “something like a loincloth,” measuring the body temperatures of Indian holy men he met along the way. “I put a thermometer up them,” Walford says. “You know, you can do whatever you want on a sabbatical.” At 59, he decided to trek 2,000 miles across Africa, from Dar es Salaam to Kinshasa, a walking/hitchhiking/riverboat tour interrupted by authorities in upper Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo), who accused him of being a spy.

Walford managed to survive all these signposts, only to be nearly done in by the one “rather crazy” thing that had the gestalt of science: Biosphere 2, a huge sealed greenhouse in the Arizona desert dreamed up by one John Allen, an engineer, poet, and playwright who got the $150 million to build it from Texas billionaire Ed Bass. Biosphere 2 (Earth is Biosphere 1, say the Biospherians), covering more than three acres of desert and 10 stories high, was hyped as the most ambitious closed ecosystem in history. Walford’s friend Hibbs, recruited for the Biosphere’s project advisory panel, says Allen and his colleagues were surprised when Walford agreed to join the crew. “They had trouble believing that this rather active research physician at ucla was serious about spending two years locked up in the Biosphere,” he says. “I told them that I never heard him say anything like this that he didn’t mean.”

In September 1991, at age 67, Walford walked in with his seven colleagues and the door was closed behind them. The colleague closest to him in age was 40; the others were an average of nearly 10 years younger than that.

It is characteristic of Walford that he describes what happened next as “kind of a miracle,” despite its lasting effect on his health. “I’d been working on caloric restriction in animals for 20 years,” he says. “And when we got inside, we found we couldn’t produce enough food to feed us all. But what we did produce was very high in quality. So I took advantage of that and told the people it’s nutritious and it’s healthy, but you’re going to be hungry. They could elect that food be sent in from the outside, or they could elect to live on a healthy starvation diet.” The Biospherians went for the starvation diet—vegetables and a half-glass of goat’s milk every day, meat once a week—for two years. Walford might have survived unimpaired had it not required what he describes as an “ungodly” amount of work to keep the Biosphere going. “Eight people running an entire mini-world, unable to call in an electrician or a plumber or anything, anybody,” he says. Six days a week, three hours a day, the Biospherians did heavy manual labor in the fields. Walford was also responsible for the functioning of 500 atmospheric sensors, many of which hung from the rafters. “I was climbing all over the structure,” he says, “and it was physically exhausting and psychologically stressful.”

His weight dropped to 119 pounds. “I was really emaciated,” he says. “And the workload kind of destroyed my back.” A more insidious problem may have come from nitrous oxide poisoning. Nitrous oxide is a gas released into the atmosphere by the respiration of microorganisms in the soil, but it is broken down into its harmless components by ultraviolet light from the sun. The glass roof of the Biosphere, however, blocked ultraviolet light, and the nitrous oxide gradually reached concentrations 100 times that of the outside world. “Long continuous inhalation is toxic,” says Walford. “It knocks out the cells in the brain that have to do with motion.”

Walford’s balance problems apparently started in the Biosphere; he says he didn’t realize it at the time, but he can see it now when he looks at himself in old videotapes. The official diagnosis when he got out was peripheral and central nervous system damage, and, despite back and hand surgery, he has never been the same. Once he starts walking, Walford can keep going in a kind of slow-motion, joglike gait, but getting himself going is a challenge.

Walford’s apartment, which he shares with Swami, a bluepoint Himalayan cat, resembles a New York artist’s loft and is cluttered with memorabilia of his life and travels, much of which seems devoted to the female body. Hibbs, who recently paid a visit, says Walford’s concern with living forever may be linked to a “so many women, so little time” sensibility. Although married for 20 years and the father of three children, Walford has been single since 1972. “Now he likes to jump from woman to woman quite frequently,” says Hibbs, “although they always seem to be the same women. He keeps rotating among them.”

Walford says there may be some truth to the so-many-women-so-little-time theory, but he prefers a broader explanation: He has always had too many projects going at one time, and women just happen to be a part of them. “It always seemed there were so many things to do in life that the first thing to do was live longer,” he says.

Among his projects is a book about the Biosphere that he expects will take at least five years to complete. He’s also working on a Biosphere documentary based on 80 hours of videotape he took while inside. He’s collaborating with Natasa Prosenc, a Fulbright scholar and a video artist. She’s the expert documentarian, says Walford, but he’s taking a course in multimedia and has built a “mini-postproduction studio” in the room next to his office.

Once those projects are complete, further studies in history or mathematics may be next. “I like them both,” he says, “but I don’t know how I’d do as a mathematician.” The uncertainty seems to entice him. The line on mathematicians is that they do their best work before they hit 30, after which it’s a downhill journey. “It would be interesting to try my hand at mathematics,” he says, “because everybody assumes it’s a young man’s trip.”

Meanwhile, he’s hoping the genetically engineered mice he’s raising in a pathogen-free environment will help uncover more secrets of the aging process. That, of course, harking back to Biosphere 2, raises the obvious question: Would Walford live in a hermetically sealed, pathogen-free plastic bubble, if that’s what it would take to add 20 or 30 more years to his life?

“Well, I’d do it for a while. Sure. I mean, look around you,” he says, laughing and pointing to his windowless office, living room, and video-art studio shut off from the outside world. “I could live in here for a long time and keep pretty happy doing all the stuff that I do.”

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