Work in Progress: Leah Olson

Why do animals get old and die? And how is diet implicated in the aging process? These are the questions Leah Olson (biology) will discuss in her forthcoming book, The Fire of Life: The Biology of Living and Dying.

Caloric restriction diets offer a compelling clue, Olson says. If mice are fed 30 to 40 percent of the calories they need to maintain a "normal" weight, they can live 40 percent longer than the average life span. These dramatic results appear to hold true for other organisms as well.

The antioxidant resveratrol, naturally found in red wine, offers another clue, she says. This compound activates an enzyme that in mice has been shown to significantly reduce the health risks associated with obesity or a diet high in fat and sugar. Resveratol may not fully explain the "French Paradox"—the observation that the French have a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease despite their atypically high dietary consumption of fats and sugars (along with plenty of red wine)—because the mice in the study received the equivalent of a few thousand liters of wine a day. As it happens, however, the enzyme that resveratrol activates also affects cell aging, and may be related to the positive effects of caloric restriction diets.