It was a TV show meant to promote longevity. But soon after Chris Hemsworth appeared with celebrity physician Peter Attia on Disney+ documentary series Limitless, it seemed to have cut short the actor’s career.
Headlines around the world screamed that the movie star, who has built his career on playing the Marvel superhero Thor, was taking a break from acting after it was revealed during the series that he had a genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s disease.
Turns out the revelation that he carried two copies of the APOE4 gene - which has been linked to an increased risk of developing degenerative brain disorder - and his impending absence from movie screens, was a coincidence or conflated at the very least.
“I don’t think I’m sharing anything that Chris wouldn’t be comfortable sharing,” Dr Attia, 50, tells The Weekend Australian.
“I know Chris wasn’t taking time off because of that knowledge (that he carried the APOE4 gene). Chris was taking time off because Chris was exhausted. Chris has worked insanely hard for a decade - never not working on a project.
“And I think that was taking a toll on him. Regardless of what his genetic predisposition was to Alzheimer’s disease, Limitless provided a great opportunity for Chris to say ‘OK, I really do need to take a little bit of a break’ - even the production of Limitless was far more taxing than it was ever billed to any of us. In Chris’s case, he was able to take some time to recharge with his family.”
And this encapsulates Dr Attia’s main piece of advice when people ask him what is the secret to living longer.
The fountain of youth and keys to a long life has been pursued for a millennia. It’s as old as man. It’s the question centenarians get asked when they are propped up in their easy chair on their big day and get peppered with questions about how they have reached such a grand age, with their answers as varied as their years.
“I think you see why every interview with a centenarian trying to elucidate the cause of or drivers of their lifespan produces some of the most comical responses,” Dr Attia says.
“It could be more cigars, more cigarettes, more whiskey, more family, more commitment - it‘s a random generator of responses.”
The Sohn Hearts & Minds conference will be held at the Sydney Opera House on November 17.
But according to Dr Attia - who will speak at the Sohn Hearts & Minds in Sydney next month - nothing is completely random. He has built a career unearthing about what fuels a long life and shared his knowledge in the bestselling book Outlive: The Science & Art of Longevity.
And what creates a long life is less complex and less expensive than it appears. In fact, if you followed it literally, it would send you off to sleep.
Embracing boredom, is Dr Attia’s main piece of advice. It appears to fly in the face of Bob Dylan’s wisdom of a man who is “not busy being born is busy dying”. But being bored, surprisingly, has significant health benefits.
“I will say that it is probably the single hardest thing for high achieving people to do. And it‘s a discomfort that is almost unimaginable,” Dr Attia says.
“I think boredom is a very important thing. I think it‘s very healthy for us to be bored and Mother Nature/natural selection has hard wired us to not want to spend much time in that situation.
“And ironically, it might be more important today than it was 100,000 years ago. You could argue maybe 100,000 years ago, it wasn’t that important and that’s why natural selection made it so uncomfortable. But today, the world we live in could not have been anticipated by Darwin, and by Darwin I don’t mean the actual person of course, I mean, the forces of natural selection. And that’s I think exactly why in this hyperstimulating world, we all need a way to be bored.”
Dr Attia is highlighting the need to be able to switch off and rest - a tough task in the modern ‘always on’ era, where extreme business has become the norm. People can communicate like never before - receiving on average more than hundreds of notifications a day via text messages, social media alerts, emails advertising and more. It’s creating digital overload that is a main cause of flatlining productivity as more employees become burnt out.
“We need a way to be in nature,” Dr Attia says while speaking to The Weekend Australian on a video call.
“I mean, think about it, the fact that I‘m looking at you on a screen from inside an air conditioned room with perfect right angles everywhere, this can’t be really healthy for my nervous system.
“It‘s healthy for me in many ways, and I wouldn’t trade this for anything - I don’t want to be living outdoors, fending off lions and tigers. But I gave something up when I adopted this lifestyle and I think it’s important that we all spend time outdoors every single day, we all spend time in the asymmetry of nature. We all spend time looking at sunlight, we all spend time being uncomfortable in extreme temperatures.”
While the Sohn Hearts & Minds conference will include rapid-fire stock picks from leading investment experts all over the globe, all of the events’ profits go to medical research with organisers targeting to raise $60m by next month.
Dr Attia labels his longevity research as medicine 3.0. He says there needs to be a shift from treating disease to preventing it in the first place, with longevity not just about reaching a ripe old age - but also living with a higher quality and more active life for longer.
“What I call medicine. 3.0 is really geared towards that degree of prevention. It‘s how do you live longer without atherosclerosis? How do you slow the progression of those things? And that’s probably where, you know, we won’t necessarily all get to be centenarians, I have no expectation that I will be given my genes, but I definitely think it adds years to life. And I think more importantly, it adds quality to life.
“To focus more on, ‘hey, when I‘m 80, how can I physically and cognitively function, the way I see a healthy 65 year old today?’ Boy, that has more bearing on the quality of your life than anything else because, you know, lifespan without healthspan is a curse.
“In fact most people are quite afraid of that. Nobody wants to live a long life and be suffering.
“So I think that what we really ought to be doing is focusing on healthspan focusing on what does the final decade of my life look like physically, cognitively, emotionally. Those are the three things that are going to define the quality of your life. And if I make sure that my actions today are setting me up, to have the best version of that final decade, what I call the marginal decade, then not only will that be exceptional, but everything leading up to it will be as well.”
And despite healthcare costs rising and the global dietary supplements market generating billions of dollars a year, Dr Attia says money can’t buy good health.
“The most expensive aspect is time. I mean, for most people to make the changes that would have the biggest impact on the length and quality of their life. Exercising every single day, eating reasonably well - yeah, that‘s going to cost a little bit more money. But it’s going to cost more time.
“It‘s good news in the sense that it’s the great equaliser. It’s bad news in that you can’t really cheat and cram for the test. You know, you can’t just say, ‘well, look, I’m willing to pay a premium for this, so therefore, I’m going to have a better experience’. I mean, it doesn’t really work that way.
“There are very, very wealthy people who have incredibly poor health. That there and then tells you, you can‘t really buy health. You can’t. On average, certainly poor socioeconomic status is associated with worse health. But at the individual level, that’s completely untrue - that’s evidenced by the fact that some of the richest people in the world are some of the least healthy.”
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