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Does a Ketogenic Diet Extend Life Span?

By Casey Thaler, B.A., NASM-CPT, FNS
December 2, 2016
Does a Ketogenic Diet Extend Life Span? image

Part Three in Our Ketogenic Diet Series

Lately there has been a lot of hype about extending lifespan with diet. Stories of new scientific evidence and exciting “discoveries” are circulating the medias causing many people to fast or severely restricting carbohydrates to live longer. But does the science actually back it?

Its true that more and more research is being published on the effects of diet and aging. Two key trends have appeared to emerge so far. First, eating vegetables and other antioxidant-rich foods is associated with improved health and longevity.1,2 Second, reducing refined sugar intake is a great way to help lessen risk of diseases, and potentially extend life duration.3,4,5,6

Beyond these two broad points, the science starts to get murky. But one area that some in the nutrition world have started zeroing in on is ketogenic diets as a way to extend lifespan.7,8,9

Ketogenic diets focus on the near elimination of carbohydrate consumption, while increasing the intake of certain dietary fats (like coconut oil).10,11 For a great explanation of the physiology of ketogenic diets, read Christopher Clark’s part one of this series.

Potential Protection Against Cellular Aging and Neurodegeneration

The theory behind the ketogenic diet’s positive anti-aging effects, is that it helps the ‘energy factories’ of our cells, called the mitochondria.12,13 Improperly functioning mitochondria cause a host of issues in our bodies. This is especially true when it come to the functioning of our brains - which are very dependent on mitochondria.14,15

Ketogenic diet research is showing it can help reduce neurodegenerative conditions.16,17,18 For example, one study concluded that dietary ketosis enhanced the memory of those who suffered from cognitive impairment.19 Another study showed that beta-hydroxybutyrate (a ketone body) is protective protection against Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.20

Beta-hydroxybutyrate and autophagy (the process of cellular ‘house cleaning’) are key elements in maintaining the health of the brain21,22 and both are promoted by a ketogenic diet. In fact, one study concluded that autophagy may mediate some of the neuroprotective benefits of the ketogenic diet.23

More Research to Come

Unfortunately, testing the effects of diet on aging in humans is extremely difficult, due to the number of variables and the length of time required for such a study. There has still been substantial research on anti-aging and diet.24,25,26 However, most of the research on ketogenic diets used mice or other rodents and not humans. While valid information can be gained in this way, there is always the risk that the results will not translate to humans.

The few human studies that have been conducted have favorable results. Take for example, a study published in 2007, which concluded that a ketogenic diet could help manage brain cancer.27 The mechanisms at play may involve removal of carbohydrates from the diet, as the brain modifies its preferred source of fuel accordingly.28,29,30

Further, while there are studies correlating a ketogenic diet with health gains, still little is truly known about the mechanisms behind the benefits of the dietary approach.31,32

Conclusion – Will You Live Longer on a Ketogenic Diet?

Does the ketogenic diet extend lifespan?

It doesn’t seem to hurt your chances of living longer, and there are signs of positive effects by improving cellular and neuronal functioning.

In today’s world, most westerners are consuming higher carbohydrate diets than what’s been seen in our history. The effects of this drastic change in diet are just beginning to be understood. The research indicates that a high-carbohydrate diet can be damaging.33 So, the idea of modifying one’s diet to eliminate carbohydrates is certainly a logical and tantalizing one.

The signs are promising, but ultimately more research needs to be conducted before we can arrive at a solid conclusion whether eliminating carbohydrates will add years to your life. Further, there are questions about the long-term sustainability and safety of a very low-carbohydrate diet.34,35

A Paleo diet, which is low in sugar, rich with antioxidants, and nutrient dense, is a surefire way to improve your health and help slow down the aging process.36,37 While Paleo diets generally are not considered ‘ketogenic’, a Paleo diet remains on the lower spectrum of carbohydrate intake among popular diets. While the science behind ketogenic diets is only in its infancy, the many positive effects of vegetables, high quality proteins, and healthy fats espoused by the Paleo diet are well documented.


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[17] Yang X., Cheng B. (2010). Neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory activities of ketogenic diet on MPTP-induced neurotoxicity. J. Mol. Neurosci. 42, 145–153.

[18] Yao J., Chen S., Mao Z., Cadenas E., Brinton R. D. (2011). 2-Deoxy-D-glucose treatment induces ketogenesis, sustains mitochondrial function, and reduces pathology in female mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease. PLoS ONE 6, e21788.

[19] Krikorian R, Shidler MD, Dangelo K, Couch SC, Benoit SC, Clegg DJ. Dietary ketosis enhances memory in mild cognitive impairment. Neurobiol Aging. 2012;33(2):425.e19-27.

[20] Edwards C, Copes N, Bradshaw PC. D-ß-hydroxybutyrate: an anti-aging ketone body. Oncotarget. 2015;6(6):3477-8.

[21] Yudkoff M, Daikhin Y, et al. Response of brain amino acid metabolism to ketosis. Neurochem Int. 2005;47(1–2):119–128.

[22] Wolf G. Calorie restriction increases life span: a molecular mechanism. Nutr Rev. 2006;64(2 Pt 1):89–92.

[23] Mccarty MF, Dinicolantonio JJ, O'keefe JH. Ketosis may promote brain macroautophagy by activating Sirt1 and hypoxia-inducible factor-1. Med Hypotheses. 2015;85(5):631-9.

[24] Masoro EJ. Dietary restriction and aging. J Am Geriatr Soc. 1993;41(9):994-9.

[25] Cosgrove MC, Franco OH, Granger SP, Murray PG, Mayes AE. Dietary nutrient intakes and skin-aging appearance among middle-aged American women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;86(4):1225-31.

[26] Schagen SK, Zampeli VA, Makrantonaki E, Zouboulis CC. Discovering the link between nutrition and skin aging. Dermatoendocrinol. 2012;4(3):298-307.

[27] Zhou W, Mukherjee P, Kiebish MA, Markis WT, Mantis JG, Seyfried TN. The calorically restricted ketogenic diet, an effective alternative therapy for malignant brain cancer. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2007;4:5.

[28] Manninen AH. Metabolic effects of the very-low-carbohydrate diets: misunderstood "villains" of human metabolism. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2004;1(2):7-11.

[29] Seyfried TN, Marsh J, Shelton LM, Huysentruyt LC, Mukherjee P. Is the restricted ketogenic diet a viable alternative to the standard of care for managing malignant brain cancer?. Epilepsy Res. 2012;100(3):310-26.

[30] Rho J. M., Stafstrom C. E. (2011). The ketogenic diet: what has science taught us? Epilepsy Res.

[31] Henderson S. T., Vogel J. L., Barr L. J., Garvin F., Jones J. J., Costantini L. C. (2009). Study of the ketogenic agent AC-1202 in mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multicenter trial. Nutr. Metab. (Lond.) 6, 31.

[32] Maalouf M., Rho J. M., Mattson M. P. (2009). The neuroprotective properties of calorie restriction, the ketogenic diet, and ketone bodies. Brain Res. Rev. 59, 293–315.

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[34] Masino, S. A., M. Kawamura, C. A. Wasser, L. T. Pomeroy, and D. N. Ruskin. 2009. Adenosine, ketogenic diet and epilepsy: The emerging therapeutic relationship between metabolism and brain activity. Current Neuropharmacology 7(3):257–268.

[35] Dashti HM, Mathew TC, Hussein T, et al. Long-term effects of a ketogenic diet in obese patients. Exp Clin Cardiol. 2004;9(3):200-5.

[36] Pitt CE. Cutting through the Paleo hype: The evidence for the Palaeolithic diet. Aust Fam Physician. 2016;45(1):35-8.

[37] Masharani U, Sherchan P, Schloetter M, et al. Metabolic and physiologic effects from consuming a hunter-gatherer (Paleolithic)-type diet in type 2 diabetes. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2015;69(8):944-8.

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