Walford’s dream of extending his own life span became more tangible in the early 1980s, when he and his then-student Rick Weindruch demonstrated that middle-aged mice could also benefit from caloric restriction. Up to that point, says Weindruch, now at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, experiments by other researchers had involved sudden caloric restrictions of obese young mice. One day the mice ate to their hearts’ content; the next day they were on a strict diet. The results, as often as not, were prematurely dead mice. Weindruch and Walford took year-old mice and over the course of two months eased them into a restricted-calorie diet. The mice lived up to 20 percent longer than their peers. The work persuaded Walford to severely cut his own caloric intake. “Roy was toying with the idea before,” says Weindruch. “This made him serious.”
Walford has kept to his starvation diet for nearly 20 years. On a typical day, he has a low-fat milkshake, a banana, some yeast, and some berries for breakfast. Lunch is a large vegetable salad, and dinner is fish, a baked sweet potato, and vegetables. His daily calorie count comes to about half the 3,000 calories per day many Americans eat. Even Hibbs lacks the wherewithal to try such an extreme diet. “It’s just very difficult,” he says. “Damn few people, including me, are willing to put up with it.”
The paradoxical aspect of Walford’s theory of signposts is that some of them seem preordained to get in the way of his personal pursuit of longevity. At age 48, for example, he decided the time had come to attempt a wheelie on his motorcycle while driving down Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. He broke both his motorcycle and his leg when the former fell on top of the latter. Two years later, he took a sabbatical from ucla to spend a year walking across India in “something like a loincloth,” measuring the body temperatures of Indian holy men he met along the way. “I put a thermometer up them,” Walford says. “You know, you can do whatever you want on a sabbatical.” At 59, he decided to trek 2,000 miles across Africa, from Dar es Salaam to Kinshasa, a walking/hitchhiking/riverboat tour interrupted by authorities in upper Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo), who accused him of being a spy.
Walford managed to survive all these signposts, only to be nearly done in by the one “rather crazy” thing that had the gestalt of science: Biosphere 2, a huge sealed greenhouse in the Arizona desert dreamed up by one John Allen, an engineer, poet, and playwright who got the $150 million to build it from Texas billionaire Ed Bass. Biosphere 2 (Earth is Biosphere 1, say the Biospherians), covering more than three acres of desert and 10 stories high, was hyped as the most ambitious closed ecosystem in history. Walford’s friend Hibbs, recruited for the Biosphere’s project advisory panel, says Allen and his colleagues were surprised when Walford agreed to join the crew. “They had trouble believing that this rather active research physician at ucla was serious about spending two years locked up in the Biosphere,” he says. “I told them that I never heard him say anything like this that he didn’t mean.”
In September 1991, at age 67, Walford walked in with his seven colleagues and the door was closed behind them. The colleague closest to him in age was 40; the others were an average of nearly 10 years younger than that.
It is characteristic of Walford that he describes what happened next as “kind of a miracle,” despite its lasting effect on his health. “I’d been working on caloric restriction in animals for 20 years,” he says. “And when we got inside, we found we couldn’t produce enough food to feed us all. But what we did produce was very high in quality. So I took advantage of that and told the people it’s nutritious and it’s healthy, but you’re going to be hungry. They could elect that food be sent in from the outside, or they could elect to live on a healthy starvation diet.” The Biospherians went for the starvation diet—vegetables and a half-glass of goat’s milk every day, meat once a week—for two years. Walford might have survived unimpaired had it not required what he describes as an “ungodly” amount of work to keep the Biosphere going. “Eight people running an entire mini-world, unable to call in an electrician or a plumber or anything, anybody,” he says. Six days a week, three hours a day, the Biospherians did heavy manual labor in the fields. Walford was also responsible for the functioning of 500 atmospheric sensors, many of which hung from the rafters. “I was climbing all over the structure,” he says, “and it was physically exhausting and psychologically stressful.”
His weight dropped to 119 pounds. “I was really emaciated,” he says. “And the workload kind of destroyed my back.” A more insidious problem may have come from nitrous oxide poisoning. Nitrous oxide is a gas released into the atmosphere by the respiration of microorganisms in the soil, but it is broken down into its harmless components by ultraviolet light from the sun. The glass roof of the Biosphere, however, blocked ultraviolet light, and the nitrous oxide gradually reached concentrations 100 times that of the outside world. “Long continuous inhalation is toxic,” says Walford. “It knocks out the cells in the brain that have to do with motion.”
Walford’s balance problems apparently started in the Biosphere; he says he didn’t realize it at the time, but he can see it now when he looks at himself in old videotapes. The official diagnosis when he got out was peripheral and central nervous system damage, and, despite back and hand surgery, he has never been the same. Once he starts walking, Walford can keep going in a kind of slow-motion, joglike gait, but getting himself going is a challenge.
Walford’s apartment, which he shares with Swami, a bluepoint Himalayan cat, resembles a New York artist’s loft and is cluttered with memorabilia of his life and travels, much of which seems devoted to the female body. Hibbs, who recently paid a visit, says Walford’s concern with living forever may be linked to a “so many women, so little time” sensibility. Although married for 20 years and the father of three children, Walford has been single since 1972. “Now he likes to jump from woman to woman quite frequently,” says Hibbs, “although they always seem to be the same women. He keeps rotating among them.”
Walford says there may be some truth to the so-many-women-so-little-time theory, but he prefers a broader explanation: He has always had too many projects going at one time, and women just happen to be a part of them. “It always seemed there were so many things to do in life that the first thing to do was live longer,” he says.
Among his projects is a book about the Biosphere that he expects will take at least five years to complete. He’s also working on a Biosphere documentary based on 80 hours of videotape he took while inside. He’s collaborating with Natasa Prosenc, a Fulbright scholar and a video artist. She’s the expert documentarian, says Walford, but he’s taking a course in multimedia and has built a “mini-postproduction studio” in the room next to his office.
Once those projects are complete, further studies in history or mathematics may be next. “I like them both,” he says, “but I don’t know how I’d do as a mathematician.” The uncertainty seems to entice him. The line on mathematicians is that they do their best work before they hit 30, after which it’s a downhill journey. “It would be interesting to try my hand at mathematics,” he says, “because everybody assumes it’s a young man’s trip.”
Meanwhile, he’s hoping the genetically engineered mice he’s raising in a pathogen-free environment will help uncover more secrets of the aging process. That, of course, harking back to Biosphere 2, raises the obvious question: Would Walford live in a hermetically sealed, pathogen-free plastic bubble, if that’s what it would take to add 20 or 30 more years to his life?
“Well, I’d do it for a while. Sure. I mean, look around you,” he says, laughing and pointing to his windowless office, living room, and video-art studio shut off from the outside world. “I could live in here for a long time and keep pretty happy doing all the stuff that I do.”