New study examines heart’s durability

By Megan McNamara

Cutting calories may slow the heart’s aging process, according to a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

The study found that as people age, their heart muscle may stiffen, hindering the heart chambers’ ability to fill with blood, called diastolic function. Like all muscles, the heart works at its best when it is flexible. However, this flexibility lessens with age, making it harder to pump blood through the heart. The researchers found that participants who followed a low-calorie diet had less inflammation, better diastolic function and lower blood pressure.

Georgina Aldridge, graduate student, followed a unique diet last year to lower her blood pressure and lose weight.

“I heard about every-other-day, or intermittent, fasting from a guy who came to talk about a study done on rats,” Aldridge said. “The study showed that caloric restriction is the only method of extending life in all species.”

Rod Johnson, professor of integrative biology, said the heart is not the only part of the body to benefit from caloric restriction.

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“Caloric restriction is very well known to increase lifespan,” Johnson said. “It is the only treatment that has ever been known to increase longevity. It’s basically thought to work by slowing metabolic rate, which reduces oxygen-free radicals in the body, a byproduct of metabolism that can damage cell membranes and contribute to aging.”

In Aldridge’s case, restricting calories through the every-other-day diet took a toll on her body.

“I ate every other day for two months,” she said. “The first week I did this diet was so painful. I experienced intense stomach pains. I thought that I’d feel dizzy and light-headed and unable to concentrate, but I actually felt much more hyper on days when I didn’t eat.”

Though it initially took self-control and adjustment, every-other-day fasting eventually became routine for Aldridge.

“I basically trained myself not to eat every day,” she said.

After two months, Aldridge returned to her normal eating patterns.

“The main reason I stopped this diet was because everyone thought I was crazy,” she said. “People were always coming up to me and asking, ‘Are you alright?’ Everyone thought I had an eating disorder.”

While Aldridge did lose weight, she was frustrated that she did not notice a change in her blood pressure.

“I wanted to lower my blood pressure, because I’ve had problems with it in the past,” she said. “But I didn’t notice any difference in my blood pressure as a result of every-other-day fasting – my blood pressure fluctuates a lot, and it fluctuated during this diet.”

Aldridge does not think the diet will become popular.

“It’s not very practical, and a lot more research needs to be done on it to find out its effects on humans,” she said.

Additionally, dieters may end up eating more over the two-day period than a person eating every day would.

Out of hunger, they may go overboard on the non-fasting day to make up for the calories not consumed the day before, thus maintaining or even gaining weight.

“The influence of meal frequency on human health and longevity is unclear,” according to a report by Mark P. Mattson, from whom Aldridge first learned about intermittent fasting.

Johnson said that although much research has been done on increasing longevity, fewer studies have been devoted to improving health span, or quality of life.