How does a Nobel Prize winner in physics go about extending his own life? In the case of Frank Wilczek, he takes supplements based on scientific research. Wilczek won the 2004 Nobel Prize in physics for his part in work on quantum chromodynamics, the theory that describes how fundamental particles called quarks and gluons interact to form the protons and neutrons at the heart of an atom. The Nobel was awarded for work he did as a 21-year-old graduate student at Princeton University. He is also known, among other things, for the discovery of asymptotic freedom, the invention of axions, and the exploration of new kinds of quantum statistics (anyons).
But don’t let such heavy-sounding topics scare you away from what Wilczek has to say, as he has made a living explaining the unexplainable to not only students in his classes at MIT, where he is the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics, but also to the general public. His ability to take complex topics and whittle them down to an easily understandable idea is why Wilczek has enjoyed a level of mainstream success by packing auditoriums for his lectures and penning successful books, such as his newest offering, The Lightness of Being, which tackles mass, ether, and the unification of forces.
What’s this have to do with extending life? While many of Wilczek’s theories may take decades or longer to prove or disprove, he is putting his own personal theories about supplements, lifestyle, and diet to the test to try and live longer right now. The feature that follows is what happens when a mind of the quality of Wilczek’s turns its attention to human longevity.
Around five years ago, Wilczek says he made a conscious decision to increase his supplement intake. He currently takes a daily multivitamin, along with several different forms of resveratrol; both grape skin and seed extracts as well as a high-potency commercial resveratrol supplement. Wilczek is also a proponent of B12 (cobalamin), folic acid, and various minerals including magnesium and selenium. “I don’t take these in mega-doses, because they can add up,” he points out. Alpha-lipoic acid provides antioxidant benefits and energy, while choline supplements help enhance his brain function. He also focuses on his diet: “A lot of berries, salmon, and broccoli, among other known healthy foods.”
Most of what he takes was decided on only after careful research. “I’m careful to follow authoritative sources that lean the same direction with statements about a supplement,” Wilczek says, adding that he never takes anything that may have disputes over safety. “With disputes over efficacy, the bar is somewhat lower,” he laughs. “I’m willing to try things that have at least plausible efficacy, because, well, maybe they do work. And if not, then at least they have a good placebo effect.”
For a scientist, he has a surprising way of evaluating the effects of his supplementation routine: “I feel good, and people tell me I look good,” he says simply. “I see pictures of myself from five years ago, and I think I look better today.” For more concrete evidence, he points to his exercise regimen. “I’ve been able to take on more strenuous activity every year since I started the supplement regimen.” He also notes that at 57 he hasn’t suffered any serious disease, and has been remarkably free of colds and flu, much more so than before taking supplements.
Wilczek believes things like supplements are decisively adding to his quality of life. Might they also be extending it? Futurist, inventor, and fellow MIT alum Raymond Kurzweil states that by 2030 biomedical technology will have advanced to the point where it will be possible to halt the body’s aging process. Wilczek feels that while Kurzweil’s speculations are in the right spirit, his timetable may be off.
“I think he’s optimistic about how soon these things will occur,” says Wilczek. “With biotechnology, computer science, and our understanding of the natural world progressing by leaps and bounds, we will certainly be able to address the processes underlying aging and correct them, maybe even eventually reverse them.” Wilczek believes that real progress will be measured when life expectancy increases by one year every year. “I’d be very surprised if we got there in the next 10-20 years, but I’d be equally surprised if we didn’t get there in the next 100. Obviously, that’s probably not soon enough to do the job for anyone currently alive.”
Wilczek finds other ideas of Kurzweil’s even more intriguing. “The concept of downloading your memory or the contents of your brain to something like a hard drive is visionary, but we’re nowhere near having the required technology, if it’s even physically possible. We really don’t understand what memory is. It’s fragile and dynamic.” Cryogenics on the other hand holds promise, he says, especially with physical components. “There are tough structures in the human body which are basically digital, for example DNA molecules, that can be reconstructed,” Wilczek says. “I can easily imagine it would be possible to clone organs, or even a human being.” But true immortality? “That’s a very different kettle of fish. But I hope Kurzweil’s right!”
Learn more about Dr. Frank Wilczek and his work at www.frankwilczek.com
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