Roy Walford recently received attention for his AAAS presentation linking a low-calorie diet to physiological changes
that retard aging, prevent disease and prolong lifespan. He's also sailed the Caribbean on a yacht purchased with gambling
winnings, hitchhiked across the girth of Africa, and bivouacked two years in Biosphere 2. Douglas Page profiles the itinerant
UCLA pathology professor and research scientist.
by Douglas Page, © 1999
The Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon searched in vain off the Florida coast for a marvelous fountain he believed could restore
youth. Maybe he should have looked in Roy Walford’s kitchen.
Walford, a longtime professor of pathology at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of more than 300 scientific
papers, has conducted extensive research aimed at slowing the aging process and extending lifespan via calorie restriction,
body temperature reduction, and the study of the role of histocompatibility (MHC) genes in aging. He is the originator of
the immunologic theory of aging, and his book on the subject, The Immunological Theory of Aging (Copenhagen, Munksgaard, 1969),
is a classic work in gerontology.
Earlier this decade, Walford got a chance to try out his dietary theories on humans. Several animal studies had shown that
rats and mice living on a reduced calorie diet live longer lives. Now, after Walford’s work, there is evidence the same
may be true for humans.
The new evidence comes from a unique, if unpropitious, experiment begun in 1991 called Biosphere 2, a 3.15 acre landlocked,
glass ark in Oracle, Ariz., in which four men and four women voluntarily sealed themselves for two years. The purpose was
to get an idea what it will take for humans to survive on a lunar or Martian colony.
From 1991 to 1993 the inhabitants of this closed, self-sufficient ecological system, which included Walford as chief of
medical operations, grew their own food, generated their own air supply and recycled their water. With a chronically low food
supply, the situation was the perfect opportunity to run the experiment on a low-calorie, high-nutrient diet.
From earlier research, scientists knew that starved mice not only have healthier hearts, but lower instances of cancer
and autoimmune diseases. They also stay fertile much longer than normal mice. Maybe, Walford thought, the same was true for
In the Biosphere, each person got 1,800 calories a day, regardless of how hard they worked growing rice, tilling fields
and performing endless other chores. Over the first six months of their scientific captivity, the male inhabitants lost an
average of 18 percent of body weight, the females 10 percent. Body temperature dropped by more than one degree celsius and
blood pressure was about 20 per cent lower than before the experiment. Other tests showed their cholesterol and triglyceride
levels were ideal; cholesterol levels fell from an average of 195 — considered normal — to 125, considered extremely
healthy. Their diabetes risk factor and blood sugar levels dropped by around 30 per cent.
Shedding surplus pounds also released toxic residues of pesticides and other environmental poisons in their bodies. These
substances are often deposited in layers of fat. In the first year of Biosphere 2, Walford recorded raised toxin levels in
the bloodstream of every participant. Not until the second year did levels gradually start to decline.
"Essentially, we've now seen the same beneficial effects in humans that we observed in rodents," says James Nelson, professor
of physiology at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center, San Antonio. "The less rodents and apes are given to eat,
the more seldom they suffer from cancer, autoimmune diseases, diabetes and heart failure. At the same time, their life expectancy
But just what mechanism allows caloric restriction to increase life span remains unknown.
"Gentle starving may start up a stress response that rescues cells from dying," says Nelson. "Cell death also plays an
important role in aging." His own work points to a type of hormone known as a corticosteroid as the factor responsible. The
hormone appears to enhance resistance to insults and toxins, aiding the immune system.
It will take years to learn if humans really live longer on such a diet. With the exception of Walford, the Biosphere team
has since gone back to eating normal American diets. Walford was so impressed by the findings that he keeps to a disciplined
The key to the success of a reduced-calorie diet is not just eating less, say Walford. Cut a typical American’s dietary
intake in half and person wouldn’t get enough nutrition. Rather, the key is eating low-calorie foods high in nutrients.
A typical day of food for Walford includes oatmeal and a milkshake fortified with tofu, whey and brewer’s yeast for
breakfast; vegetable salad for lunch; and fish, sweet potatoes and steamed vegetables for dinner.
"Basically it is what you would assume is a very wholesome diet - a lot of vegetables, some fruits, whole grains, a little
bit of meat, for fat. It's not that mysterious," he says. People who want to try this low-calorie diet cannot simply eat less,
but have to eat better. "It’s not dangerous if it’s done properly," he says. "If it’s not done properly,
you get into the problem of vitamin deficiencies."
Any theory this new, and this radical, does not find immediate mainstream scientific acceptance. Many scientists believe
the human body is programmed to unravel steadily, cell by cell. Roderick Bronson, a veterinary pathologist at Tufts University
School of Veterinary Medicine who studies aging in mice, believes that the passage of time affects most types of cells. As
normal mice age, trivial abnormalities build up throughout the body until it simply deteriorates.
Walford doesn’t expect most people to adopt his diet. "A subgroup will emerge that will be very long-lived in the
next century," he predicts. "I’m not trying to convert anybody."
The genial, bald Walford, who speaks softly from behind a cascading brake of mustache hair, is no stranger to controversy.
His anti-war guerilla theater band attracted storms of contempt during the Vietnam War, to say nothing of the police. He marched
those same streets with his hero, Linus Pauling. And he published two popular, though controversial books ("Maximum Life Span",
W.W. Norton, 1983; and "The 120-Year Diet", Simon and Schuster, 1986), even before the Biosphere episode.
Walford admired Pauling not so much for his belief in the efficacy of vitamin therapy as his personal courage and integrity.
"He was courageous enough to be politically active," Walford says. "The first anti-war parade in Los Angeles, 1,000 people
walked down the street and he was at their head. Whether you agree with that or not, it’s courageous. He put himself
on the line."
As far as Pauling’s ideas about vitamins, Walford doesn’t necessarily agree that we should be taking 15 grams
of Vitamin C a day. "Pauling was right on the issue that the Recommended Daily Allowances are set at a level that prevents
scurvy but are not very good beyond that," Walford says.
"As I said in ‘The 120-Year Diet’, the real criteria for how much you should take of any supplement is the
effect it has on life span and disease patterns," he says. "Give it to animals at different doses and you find a minimum that
they have to have so they don’t get sick. You might find that three or four times that they live a little longer with
fewer diseases. But that’s never experimented with. The nutrition community doesn’t use that criteria - they use
short term experiments."
Live Long and Prosper
The 75 year old Walford, who has been on the faculty of UCLA since 1954, says he was always interested in aging research,
gerontology and life extension. There are so many interesting things to do in life that he wanted to live longer, he says.
Walford, a San Diego native, hasn’t missed many rungs on the ladder of life. His life has lived as though guided
by the Gods of Satisfaction.
After three-quarters of a century, his foremost regret is not trying out for the U.S. Olympic team in 1948. He’d
hurt his shoulder as the captain of the University of Chicago wrestling team and wasn’t able to compete. "I think I
might have gone to the [London] Olympics," he says. "That would have been great."
Instead, he went to the Nevada casinos.
In the late 1940s, while studying for an M.D. at the University of Chicago, he found himself taking the pulse of the Harold’s
Club roulette wheel in Reno, where he and a friend (well-known JPL scientist Al Hibbs) won enough money (over $6,500) to earn
a full page photo layout in Life Magazine - "Gambling Ace Wins MD". Ultimately, the pair of scholarly wildcatters pocketed
over $30,000. Their success helped popularize gambling in Nevada.
"With gambling, you’re dealing with pure mathematics and imperfect machines," he says. "Some numbers are bound to
come up more often because the wheel is man-made. If you take a large enough number of observations (they took between 3,000
and 4,000), you find that some come up more often than they should. The rest is simply betting to take advantage of that."
With their winnings, the two gambling protégés bought a yacht and sailed the long route through the Caribbean. Walford
finally lowered sails 18 months later in the Canal Zone, where he interned at Gorgas Hospital.
He eventually took a residency in pathology at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Los Angeles. Following service with
the Air Force in Korea, he joined the faculty of UCLA. A year later he became attending pathologist at the Los Angeles VA,
just down the street from UCLA. For over 40 years he has stayed busy. "I view the present stratified structure of society
as not conducive to long life," he says. "You go to school, you work and then retire to a leisure period. That’s not
good in terms of creating a long-living society."
He does life differently, interweaving education, work and leisure throughout life. "You never retire unless you get sick."
As a result, his days are as work-intensive as ever, though he spends most of them at his personal biosphere a block from
the beach in Venice, Calif., - a museum/studio congested with artifacts accumulated from years of travel. He spent a year
in India "roaming around", a year each in Germany and France on sabbatical. In 1983 he walked and hitchhiked across Africa
from Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania to Kinshasa, Zaire.
He’s writing a book about the Biosphere adventure, and also intends to produce a documentary film from the 70 or
80 hours of high-quality footage he shot inside, the only resource of its kind.
While he no longer teaches, (or performs gorilla theater on the streets of Los Angeles), he does maintain an office and
laboratory on campus.
"Technically, I’m ‘retired’ from UCLA," he says. "I had to retire to take off all the time to go into
Biosphere. I was 68 anyway. But I don’t consider it a retirement. I’m still working, I just don’t have to
go to committee meetings. I do what I want there, which is research."
Modern aging research started in 1935 by Cornell professor Clyde McKay, who first observed that if you feed rodents a very
low calorie but nutrient-sufficient diet it would extend life.
The next phase in the historical development of the low calorie diet was done by McKay and others, who also found that
the incidence of cancer and vascular disease was much lower on a low calorie diet, and when disease did occur, it occurred
at a later age.
In the third phase, initiated by Walford, researchers began asking ‘what are the physiologic changes induced by that
kind of diet. "I first looked at immunology and found the immune response, which normally decays markedly with advanced age,
is preserved, or at least the decline was less on the calorie restriction," Walford says. "So I then studied the different
parameters of the immune system in relation to that."
In the fourth phase, Walford and others are seeking the mechanism whereby a selective lowering in calories induces all
these global changes in physiology.
Walford is chiefly the one involved in applications to humans. "Others have been involved in applications in monkeys,"
says Walford, the father of three children and grandfather to two. "Humans are also primates. If it works in monkeys, it’ll
also work in humans."
Nutritionists Out to Lunch
Perhaps the greatest puzzle in the whole field of aging research, according the Walford, is the Case of the Missing Nutritionists.
"There’s one funny fact," he says, "and that’s if you look in the extensive aging literature, it’s all been
developed by gerontologists. If you look in any of the big textbooks on nutrition, you won’t find it even mentioned.
"I looked through six of them recently and found of couple of short paragraphs in one which were incorrect. The others
didn’t mention it at all. Nutritionists are out to lunch on this issue. They may have some fixation that this research
is abnormal, but if it extends life span, they ought to be studying it."
Others have had no trouble finding value in his work. He has received various honors and awards, including the Levine Award
of the American Society of Clinical Pathology (1980), the Research Award of the American Aging Association (1980), the Kleemeier
Award from the Gerontological Society of America (1980), the Henderson Award from the American Geriatrics Society (1982),
The Senator Alan Cranston Award (1982), and the Infinity Award of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine (1994). Asteroid
#4629 was named after him by its discoverer (E. Helene) in 1986.
Walford is popular with the mass media. In the past 20 years his television interviews have included appearances on In
Search Of; Omni's The New Frontier; Nova; the BBC's On Aging; The Merv Griffin Show; Good Morning America; PBS's War On Aging;
CNN's On Aging; ABC's "20/20 Special on Aging"; Canadian TV's The Originals; Primetime Live with Diane Sawyer; The Learning
Channel, Ultrascience: Forever Young; NBC's Dateline; the BBC's Life Without End; the Discovery Channel; PBS's Life and Times
Tonight; and the Larry King Show.
His membership in scientific societies include the American Aging Association, Gerontological Society of America, American
Association for the Advancement of Science, American Association of Blood Banks, Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine,
and the New York Academy of Sciences.
Walford is also a member of the Explorer's Club, which is dedicated to the advancement of field research, scientific exploration,
and the ideal that it is vital to preserve the instinct to explore.
His explorations may lead to something everyone can find - longer life. Clearly, there is strong evidence that staying
active, both mentally and physically - along with eating a
nutritious diet - strengthens the brain, muscles, heart, and immune system. Aging may be more in our control than we realize.