As part of our series covering the various researchers working on aging, we finally caught up with Dr. Michael Lustgarten, author of ‘Microbial Burden: A Major Cause Of Aging And Age-Related Disease’, and we did this short interview that we hope may be of interest to you.
Hi Mike, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work?
My name is Michael Lustgarten, and I’m currently a scientist at the Tufts University Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging in Boston, Massachusets. I have funding to examine the role of the gut microbiome and serum metabolome on lean mass and physical function in older adults.
You use the phrase optimal health in your talks, what exactly do you mean by that?
For me, optimal health means minimizing disease risk, improving functional performance (both physical and cognitive), and extending lifespan to as long as my genetics will allow. To attain this version of optimal health, I track my nutrition every day, get my blood regularly tested (4-6x/year), and sequence my gut microbiome.
In terms of tracking nutrition, I use a food scale, literally weighing everything I eat. Then, I enter this data into an online app that tracks macro- and micronutrients. In terms of blood testing, I track the data found on a standard blood chemistry screen, including markers reflective of liver and kidney function, immune cells and their differentials, the lipid profile, etc.
In addition, I track my gut microbiome to ensure that I’ve got ample amounts of short-chain fatty acid-producing bacteria, which, as I’ve written about on my blog, may play a role in extending lifespan.
There are many biomarkers that one can measure, but what practical and cost-effective ones would you suggest people use to help them maintain optimal health at home without breaking the bank?
The standard blood chemistry screen (CBC) has a wealth of information, and I’ve been using that for more than 10 years with the goal of optimizing my health. In contrast with the genome, the analytes found on the CBC have been studied for more than 50 years and are reflective of the health and function of multiple organ systems.
In addition, most of these markers are modifiable by diet, so it’s possible to have the circulating biomarker levels of a healthy 20 year old, even if your chronological age is much older. Are you really 40 years old if your circulating biomarkers are that of someone much younger? In terms of cost, it’s commercially available for ~$35. Similarly, the gut microbiome can be purchased for $89, and the dietary tracking app is free online.
What do you think of the value of DNA testing services?
Eventually, full genome sequencing (unlike the SNP-based approach that many companies currently use) will be an important piece in the quest for optimal health. However, it is currently cost prohibitive at ~$1000 per genome. Moreover, large epidemiological (epi) studies need to be performed to adequately assess genomic risk, and these are only recently being conducted.
Plus, will the epi genomic data match your own? Can actionable epi genomic data be scaled down to the individual? Once these issues are worked out-and it may be in the order of decades to get there, the full, sequenced genome will be a very important part in the ‘omic-based approach to health.
Do you use supplements and, if so, what is in your stack?
Because I track and optimize my nutrition (every day) to values that at least (and some purposefully in excess) cover the RDA, it isn’t necessary for me to supplement, with the exception of Vitamin D in the winter. Most people supplement based on faith; they take it and assume that their health or lifespan will match the studies performed on it. Do your supplement(s) actually improve your circulating biomarkers?
Do you subscribe to the idea that a particular diet such as vegetarianism or veganism is superior, or that people should eat a diet optimized for them?
It all comes down to what the individual’s biomarkers look like. Maybe you like eating a meat-heavy diet, but what do your biomarkers say? If they’re mostly going in the wrong direction, then dietary change is obviously important, but what if your levels are optimized on such a diet? I’ve tried every approach, including veganism, vegetarianism, omnivore, high and low fat, etc. while simultaneously investigating their effect on my circulating biomarkers.
For example, I went almost completely raw vegan (including cooked food 1-2x/week) for one full year, and while it improved some variables, like LDL and BUN, it reduced my HDL and elevated my triglycerides. So I added fish back into my diet, and my HDL and triglycerides then went back in the right direction while also keeping my LDL and BUN relatively low.
We hear a lot about ‘superfoods’. Do you think these are real or a marketing ploy?
If a superfood is defined by nutrient density, then the green leafy vegetables (spinach, collards, kale, others like broccoli) would be included. This is generally not what is meant by this term and is pure marketing hype. Compared to refined grains, quinoa, for example, would be a superfood. Comparing quinoa to broccoli? The nutrient comparison isn’t even close: broccoli easily wins.
Do you think organic or GMO food is any different considering the studies by the FDA, WHO, and other major organizations suggest they are the same?
Lots of pro-GMO scientists cite the short-term data showing that GMO-based food is very similar in nutrient composition to non-GMO food. However, there are variables that aren’t well studied, like the composition of microbes that live on non-GMO vs. GMO food or the longitudinal effect of eating a high-GMO diet.
I’m in the boat of minimizing risk-I’d rather wait 20 years for the science to be abundant on this issue. If, at best, GMO food is benign in terms of added risk, how much risk am I adding by eating non-GMO food? I’d rather stick with the non-GMO food, for now.
What measures should people be taking now to increase their chances of living longer healthier lives?
My opinion is to optimize the analytes found on the CBC. As I mentioned earlier, the CBC is indicative of the health and function of multiple organ systems. If your systemic physiology is similar to that of a 20 year old, but you’re chronologically 70, how much have you aged?
As well as having accurate biomarkers for humans, we believe there is also an urgent need to develop better biomarkers for mice too. This would allow more accurate data to be collected and potentially speed up preclinical research on aging. What do you think to this suggestion?
As long as the mouse biomarkers reflect processes that are similar in humans, this is okay.
How challenging do you think it would be to find a panel of biomarkers of equal validity in both mice and men with a view to determining efficacy of interventions on the aging process?
First, it would be important to show a similar metabolic process for some outcome in both mice and humans. Then, what does the data look like in mice, and can we design an intervention to test the mouse result in humans? Conversely, if the biological processes are similar in mice and humans, if we see an association with an outcome in humans, can we test causality in mice? That’s a good translational approach, in my opinion.
What biomarkers would you suggest researchers combine to make accurate evaluations for the efficacy of therapies that address the aging process?
Rate of change is very important. What does the marker look like in youth, compared with the aged? Is the marker malleable via diet, exercise, supplements, or drugs?
Many people think the only way to see if therapies that might increase human lifespan work is to wait. However, some researchers believe we can make reasonable projections of possible longevity effects based on biomarkers and adjust the life expectancy based on changes to biological age. Do you agree?
Waiting for me is not an option. Cumulative burden is an issue. If you live for 40 years with a suboptimal diet/exercise approach, have you aged more than someone who has optimized these things? I’d argue yes, but I’m in the boat where even slowing aging by as little as 1% during that time would be a win for me. I think the gain would be much greater than 1%, however.
Also, I’d argue that someone who actively works on quantifying their existence should be better able to survive an illness or disease diagnosis.
As you know, there are many researchers and labs working on treating age-related diseases, and the focus is shifting from a single disease focus to tackling the underlying aging processes that cause them to delay or prevent disease onset. Are you excited about this change in approach some researchers are making?
Definitely early intervention is the best way to go, and this is central to my approach. By tracking my blood regularly, I should be able to catch a metabolic change before it becomes pathological. For example, the reference range for the liver enzyme AST is < 40 U/L. If my liver enzymes are 15 when I’m 15, 20 when I’m 20, 25 when I’m 25, 30 when I’m 30, and 35 when I’m 35, I’m still within the reference range, but, my values have more than doubled!
Ideally, when I was 15, I would have done the testing to figure out how to optimize these values so that they don’t change with time, as higher values are indicative or worse liver health. Unfortunately, most people don’t try to intervene until they’re too high or too low for the reference range, and then it can be too late.
Some researchers suggest that we have a ~120 year limit to our lifespan and that is the best we can do. However, an increasing number of academics believe that we could push beyond this using interventions that target the aging processes. Do you believe science will allow us to push beyond what appears to be our current limitations?
Since ~1840, our average lifespan has increased by ~2 years for every decade lived. Even with rapid technological advancements, I expect that this longevity trend will continue until the average lifespan is maximal, ~120 years. By extrapolation, that will be ~200 years from now. During that time, it will become more popular to focus on living longer, and the research investment to get us beyond the 120 year-term will slowly increase. Then, conservatively, I expect the lifespan-increasing trend to continue, ~2 year increase for every decade lived. I’m also not ruling out the ability of technology to increase this to greater than 2 years per decade lived.
You wrote a book all about the influence of microbial burden on the aging process; are you planning another book in the future?
Definitely! I’m gathering the data that shows a role for microbial burden on all of the hallmarks of aging.
Also, I’m kicking around the idea of summarizing my blood and nutrient-testing approach to optimal health in a book. Some of that is in my microbial burden book, but there’s lots more to say on that subject!
Finally, we would like to thank you for joining us today and doing this interview with us. Do you have any take-home message for the readers?
Life is short; let’s conquer aging!
Thank you Mike for taking the time to share your thoughts with us, and we wish you all the best in your quest for optimal health and longevity.