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NIA Study and the World Economy


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The fact that Calorie Restriction prolongs life used to be an axiom.


That axiom remained unchallenged until August 2012 when at least three major news outlets rushed to refute the positive role of CR in prolonging life. ‘Calorie Restriction Falters in the Long Run,’ proclaimed Nature. ‘Severe Diet Doesn’t Prolong Life, at Least in Monkeys,’ reverberated The New York Times. ‘Want to Live Longer? Don’t Try Caloric Restriction,’ echoed Time.


All three sources quoted a study conducted by the National Institute of Aging (NIA). Here’s a short recap: the NIA study involved 121 rhesus macaques divided into two groups: the CR group consumed 30% less calories than the control group. And, although the macaques in CR- group boasted of their superior health, it wasn’t accompanied by a longer life span. The results of the study shocked everyone. It looked like the eighty-year old rock solid theory had crumbled.


However, in light of recent developments, it is too early to discard a well-established theory because of one contradicting study. What had recently occurred in a different field of science, the economy, should serve as a warning against rushed conclusions. Here’s what happened:


In 2010, two distinguished Harvard economists, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, published a study claiming that economic growth drastically slows down to -.1% when the size of a country's debt rises above 90% of its GDP. This study was consistently used to push for fiscal austerity on both sides of the Atlantic. In Europe, the economy was put in a straightjacket of severe fiscal discipline. In America, the Republican austerity hawks tried hard to implement the same measures emboldened by the fact that, for once, their claims were based not just on the ‘gut feeling’ but also on solid, Harvard-borne science.


Nevertheless, when a postgraduate student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Thomas Herndon, tried to replicate the Reinhart-Rogoff study, he wasn’t able to do it no matter how hard he tried. Finally, he discovered a bunch of mistakes and omissions that seriously botched the results of the study. When Herndon filled the gaps in the Reinhart-Rogoff database, the estimates showed that the countries with >90% debt still had a relatively robust economic growth of 2.2%.


So, let’s take a deep breath and restrain ourselves from any expeditious conclusions before the NIA study is completed - 49 monkeys in this study are still alive. And then, in accordance with good scientific practice, we need to replicate the NIA study to confirm or not confirm that CR increases longevity in primates.

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