August 9, 2021

Science of Aging

#171 – Steve Austad, Ph.D.: The landscape of longevity science: making sense of caloric restriction, biomarkers of aging, and possible geroprotective molecules

“I never thought [extending the human lifespan] was going to happen because we got better at treating cancer or we got better at preventing heart disease. I always thought it was going to happen because we would develop something ... that would fundamentally change the rate of aging. And we haven't developed that yet. We've got a lot of clues and I think we're getting closer and closer and closer.” —Steve Austad

Read Time 34 minutes

Steve Austad is a distinguished professor of biology at the University of Alabama and director of one of the Nathan Shock Centers of Excellence in aging biology. Steve’s current research seeks to understand the underlying causes of aging, specifically with a long-term goal of developing medical interventions that slow the age-related decay of human health. In this episode, Steve tells Peter about his unusual childhood and stints as a cab driver and lion tamer. He goes on to describe what led to his focus on studying aging and some of the major challenges and limitations of working with laboratory animals. Steve and Peter talk about the relationship between caloric restriction and lifespan, including some of the most important studies exploring this question. Additionally, they hypothesize what might explain the sex-related differences in longevity between men and women, explain the importance of finding longevity biomarkers, and discuss the most promising molecules as potential longevity agents.



We discuss:

  • Steve’s background and unusual childhood [2:30];
  • Steve’s adventures driving a cab in New York City [9:00];
  • How Steve drove to LA and accidentally became a lion tamer [13:30];
  • How Steve’s early graduate school experiences led him to study longevity [23:00];
  • The challenges and limitations of working with lab mice [30:45];
  • The connection between caloric restriction and lifespan [43:00];
  • Mice vs. rats and rodent aging experiments [51:15];
  • The impact of dietary composition and the harm of sucrose: Comparing two caloric-restriction studies in monkeys [56:00];
  • Challenges of studying animals due to major differences in the lab animal vs. wild animals [1:10:00];
  • Human studies of calorie restriction [1:24:45];
  • Better dietary protocols for humans: Alternatives to long-term caloric restriction [1:33:45];
  • The protective effect of fasting [1:38:00];
  • Reflecting on the sex differences in human lifespan, and why women have more neurodegenerative diseases [1:45:45];
  • The importance of identifying longevity biomarkers and which ones show the potential to change the landscape of longevity research [2:03:30];
  • Molecules showing the most promise as longevity agents [2:14:00]; and
  • More.


Steve’s background and unusual childhood [2:30]

  • Peter says his learning “increases at a geometric rate” when he talks to Steve and any discussion about longevity needs to begin with Steve’s background
  • In high school everyone thought Steve would be a mathematician
    • He didn’t believe his high school bio teacher who said he would be a biologist
    • But he didn’t enjoy math in college at UCLA and switched to English, thinking he would write a great novelist
  • When Steve was growing up, his family spent about 6 years traveling around in a trailer (4:51)
    • He went to ~20 different grade schools
    • His dad was a newspaper pressman with a union traveling card that meant any major city newspaper would hire him for a short period of time (5:26)
    • They went to El Paso, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami, Virginia, New York, Detroit, and other places and he read books on his own while they traveled
  • Peter wonders if any kid could thrive in such a disruptive setting with no continuity, constantly changing schools and starting over again socially (6:22)
    • Steve was an only child and used to being thrown on his own resources (7:08)
    • As the smallest kid in the class (5’4” and 105 lbs when he graduated from high school), he quickly figured out that he could avoid being beaten up by the bigger kids if he helped them with their homework
    • Steve got injections in high school (perhaps growth hormone or testosterone) and then started puberty and had his growth spurt in college (8:12)


Steve’s adventures driving a cab in New York City [9:00]

  • Steve wanted to pursue writing so he went to NY because the publishing industry was there
  • He wanted to “accumulate a lot of experiences in a hurry” to have material for his books (9:18)
    • Frequently hitchhiked around the country (including from LA to NY)
    • Decided to be a cab driver for the experience of it – he drove a cab in NY in the mid-1970s
      • He worked from about 4 pm to midnight or 2 am (10:32)
      • One guy asked him to stop in every bar along the way.  He said he was looking for his wife and would shoot her when he found her. Steve asked him to pay the fare at that point
  • NY was much more dangerous then (12:11)   
    • Steve would take fares to Harlem but many others wouldn’t (12:43)
    • He was the only driver from his garage who was never robbed, which he attributes to luck (13:07)


How Steve drove to LA and accidentally became a lion tamer [13:30]

  • He eventually moved back to Portland, OR, where he had lived from grades 6-10 (13:42)
    • He was working as a newspaper reporter and taking karate from a teacher who kept African lions at his ranch out in the country
  • He agreed to help the karate teacher take a lion to Hollywood to be in a movie
    • He expected there to be a trailer on the car, but the lion rode in back with “no screen, no window, nothing between the front and the back seat”
    • He was supposed to control the lion with a cattle electric prod, but the battery ran out after one use and the lion got restless
    • They walked the lion on a leash in the dark along a country road to tire it out
  • At one point the police pulled them over, the lion stepped on the horn, and the cop just wanted them to leave because he had no idea what to do
  • When they got to LA, the movie producer offered him a job as a lion tamer even though he was a reporter with no experience (18:18)
    • The guy wanted Steve to live at his house where he was raising lions to take care of them
    • He said the only other people there would be his daughter and his wife Tippi
    • Steve had a crush on the actress named Tippi Hedren from The Birds, and she turned out to be the producer’s wife, so Steve took the job (19:12)
  • He had given up on being a writer by then and found that he loved the job and the animals (20:14)

“I’d almost feel like I’d been given this gift of something that I was always meant to do, but just by luck, it’s just stumbled into it.” —Steve Austad

What prompted Steve to go back to graduate school?

  • One day Steve was attacked by a lion – it pinned him down and sank its teeth into his leg (20:53)
    • Some people pulled over to look into the compound (in Acton, CA) and see if they could see any wild animals
    • They saw him under the lion and told the front office and other trainers came to rescue him
    • He spent weeks in the hospital and months recovering
  • He loved the animals but was bored with Hollywood and the movie business, so he decided to go to graduate school


How Steve’s early graduate school experiences led him to study longevity [23:00]

  • He went to graduate school hoping to study lions in East Africa
    • He did not arrive in east Africa quickly enough to take over the Serengeti Lion Project
    • Combined his math ability with his interest in animals and did his PhD on theoretical models of animal combat (why animals very seldom fight to the death)
    • He did a post-doctoral fellowship at a biological station in South America studying social birds

{end of show notes preview}

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  1. I told someone I have to listen to novels some of the time because reality is becoming so depressing. Not true with his stories, what an interesting guy, thanks for drawing him out!
    For the sake of all the women in his life, however, please share with him Avrum Bluming’s interview or have Felice Gersh on your podcast to talk about her 2021 BMJ article on HRT and her history of hormone curiosity and understanding.

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