by Patrick Cox
October 12, 2015
Periodically, someone declares that Moore’s Law, the doubling in computer power at a given price every two years or so, will soon be over. We are warned that the pace of technological innovation and possibly even the computer industry itself will stall. Then, somebody announces a breakthrough that extends Moore’s Law once again, temporarily putting to rest fears of peak innovation.
In July, for example, articles warning that Moore’s Law is on its last legs appeared in various outlets, including The Independent. Its paragraph-long title and subhead sum up the story nicely. “The end of Moore’s Law? Why the theory that computer processors will double in power every two years may be becoming obsolete. Intel chief says next-generation processors would take longer to produce.”
So, once again, it seems the exponential increase will continue. This is fortunate, as the biggest impact will be in biotechnology. This may seem like a bold speculation, but it’s not. Information technology is changing every sector of the economy, but the healthcare industry—the business of improving and extending our lives—is the biggest of all sectors. Already, computer technologies have transformed virtually every aspect of modern medicine.
Despite the wet blanket of regulatory oversight, this transformation will accelerate for several reasons, the biggest being that it must accelerate to accommodate an aging population with increasing healthcare needs. What we experience now is a self-reinforcing and intensifying cycle of life-extending biotechnologies caused by life-extending biotechnologies.
Biotech has increased life spans dramatically, a demographic phenomenon inevitably accompanied by reduced birth rates. Older populations grow in size while births fall below the replacement rate. Consequently, the average age of the population rises along with healthcare costs, simply because older people have higher medical bills than younger people. The greater need for healthcare drives markets and innovations that lead to increased life spans. And the cycles intensifies.
These kinds of feedback-driven cycles are referred to either as vicious or virtuous cycles, depending on whether or not you think they are good things. I’ll let you decide whether the longer, healthier life spans that are behind so many countries’ budget problems are a good thing, but regardless, the cycle is accelerating, and I don’t see an end to it.
Some scientists believe the natural limit to the human life span is about 120 years, but regenerative medicine could theoretically replace every cell in your body with a younger version, abolishing that 120-year-limitation.
Every day, I hear of extraordinary biotech breakthroughs, but the most important are not widely reported, due to the complex nature of the business. Nevertheless, remarkable discoveries point to the near elimination of age-related cancers, heart disease, fibrosis of the organs, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and even obesity.
Today, however, I’d like to talk about some of the nutritional and lifestyle factors outside of regulatory control. More specifically, I’m interested in how new technologies powered by Moore’s Law may help us solve some of the knottiest and most fascinating questions involving diet and lifestyle.
It doesn’t help that virtually any nutritional advice endorsed by governments has probably been wrong. The big organizations that accept government funding for distributing health advice are therefore similarly susceptible to accepting flawed science.
You’ve undoubtedly noticed that many previously issued dietary recommendations are under attack by a new generation of scientists. The old food pyramid recommendations are not just being questioned, many scientists believe that government guidelines have contributed to increased rates of obesity, metabolic syndrome, and mortality rates. Needless to say, these are tense discussions, because (indirectly at least) the proponents of the old nutritional science are being implicitly accused of negligent homicide.
The old doctrines regarding the health risks of salt, alcohol, vitamin D, and saturated fats are under assault. In the last few days, for example, I’ve noticed a flurry of articles, such as this one in the Washington Post, that are challenging the demonization of whole milk and dairy fats. On a somewhat related topic, recommendations regarding the omega-3 fish oil supplements are also being questioned.
All these contradictory and potentially dangerous claims by “the authorities” are confusing and frustrating. I have come to the conclusion that the entire concept of consensus government science is an oxymoron.
So what do we do?
Fortunately, Moore’s Law is providing the means to solving these questions. Not only is more science being done thanks to computers and the underappreciated breakthrough called database software technology, much of it is available to anybody who knows how to use Google Scholar. Studies can be wrong, misleading, and even faked, but it’s possible to come to solid conclusions given sufficient review of the literature.
As smartphones become more powerful with smaller computer components, they have been deployed to gather data related to some of our most critical nutritional and lifestyle questions. Right now, scientists I know personally are working on integrating more advanced sensors. More importantly, they are finding ways to integrate our sequenced genomes into the health puzzle. The resulting findings will have a real impact on your health and life span.
If you’ve been reading my missive recently, you know about the discovery of the significance of dietary nitrates, due to the remarkable benefits of beets for elite athletes as well as heart disease patients. If you’re bored by this subject, it means you don’t understand the implications.
Nitric oxide (NO) is the most important neurotransmitter in your body, and the age-related decrease in NO contributes to numerous disorders, including the number one killer: heart disease. It also plays an important role in immune function.
Rather than review the science again, let me encourage you to read this farsighted 2009 article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition titled, “Food sources of nitrates and nitrites: the physiologic context for potential health benefits.” The authors review the available literature at the time and suggest that dietary nitrates have been overlooked as a critical nutritional factor due to unscientific assumptions.
You can read the entire paper online, but I’ll excerpt the last paragraph:
Despite the demonstration of physiologic roles for nitrate and nitrite in vascular and immune function, food sources of nitrates and nitrites as healthful dietary components have received little attention (18). The questionable practice of causal inference with regard to the etiologic roles of dietary nitrates and nitrites in methemoglobinemia and cancer has exerted a detrimental effect on research supporting the health benefits of nitrate- and nitrite-containing foods. This has occurred despite the observed benefits of nitrate and nitrite in medical therapeutics (102). Indeed, data from observational epidemiologic and human clinical studies support the hypothesis that nitrates and nitrites of plant origin play essential physiologic roles in supporting cardiovascular health and gastrointestinal immune function. We support the recent call for a multidisciplinary and systematic review of the biological consequences of dietary nitrate and nitrite consumption (84). The strength of the evidence linking the consumption of nitrate- and nitrite-containing plant foods to beneficial health effects supports the consideration of these compounds as nutrients.
Interestingly, you don’t have to eat beets to get the dramatic improvements in athletic performance from nitrates. Another rich source is spinach. So it started me thinking about the old Popeye cartoons, in which Popeye would down a can of spinach and get much stronger.
That’s pretty much how I felt when I started drinking beet juice before lifting weights. According to online lore, the use of spinach as a performance-enhancing substance in Popeye cartoons was based on a misunderstanding about the iron content of the vegetable. I’m skeptical.
My workouts improved so dramatically, I have to wonder if someone didn’t notice the same effect could be had by eating canned spinach before a contest. It turns out, however, that NO doesn’t play a significant role in recovery from exercise. While I’m lifting more and heavier now, I’ve also had to add an extra rest day to my routine to avoid overtraining. This makes sense because protein synthesis, the major component of adaptation to resistance training, has very little to do with nitric oxide.
So, here we are in the 21st century, and we’re just finding out that a cartoon character first published in 1929 seems to have been prophetic regarding dietary nitrates. What else are we going to learn when science is distributed and democratized?
I have a few ideas based on unpublished work by scientists I know personally, but there are many areas rife with potential.
Turmeric, the spice native to southwest India, has known health benefits as this recent paper points out. The active ingredient, curcumin, is found in lesser concentration in the popular spice cumin.
For people who no longer have access to anatabine citrate, this may be a particularly interesting topic. Some of curcumin’s benefits are the same, including inhibition of NF-κB, which is chronically overactivated in most people as they age. We don’t really know, however, what proper dosing would look like or if there would be side effects at those levels.
Similarly, we know that spicy foods have health benefits, but I’m not aware of detailed recommendations regarding optimal consumption. This paper in The BMJ, formerly the British Medical Journal, shows that people who eat more spicy foods live longer than those who don’t. This article in the American Chemical Society News discusses a paper that may explain why.
There are a lot more things that lend themselves to crowd-sourced scientific investigation via mobile research apps, but I’ll end here. I’ve got a sudden craving for Indian food. For some reason, I’m thinking about a spicy spinach or beet curry.
— This article originally appeared at Transformational Technologies.