For eons, humans have wondered how to live longer. Of course there are some things that can help--diet and exercise, preventive medical care. But now if you love good food, there's a little more good news for you.
Researchers at Pennsylvania State University say they've found that a simple food that most of us eat--ordinary mushrooms--contains high levels of two antioxidants that are theorized to fight medical conditions associated with aging, like cancer, coronary heart disease, and Alzheimer's disease.
Their results were published last month in the scientific journal Food Chemistry.
It's an intriguing scientific discovery that, if it's not quite the fountain of youth, could nevertheless yield further dividends and help us to combat the effects of aging. So, with a skeptical but not cynical eye, let's examine what the researchers found, and what it might mean for our diets and longevity.
The free radical theory of aging
The researchers at Penn State were looking at the prevalence of two antioxidants, called ergothioneine and glutathione, which they discovered are found in much higher levels in mushrooms than in most other foods.
We care about these antioxidants because they could be the key to reversing some aspects of the natural aging process.
When our bodies convert food into energy, the process has a byproduct: the production of highly reactive oxygen atoms with unpaired electrons. These particles travel "through the body seeking to pair up with other electrons," as a university press release describes, causing damage to "cells, proteins, and even DNA" in the process.
The phenomenon is referred to as "oxidative stress," and the highly reactive oxygen atoms are called free radicals. The free radical theory of aging, then, suggests that this process is what actually leads to our bodies' components deteriorating over time. In other words, it's not simply a function of time, but of things that happen naturally over time.
So, to recap: Free radicals spur aging, according to this theory, but antioxidants can theoretically counteract the free radicals. And the researchers say they've now discovered that mushrooms contain sky-high levels of antioxidants.
So, eat mushrooms?
Is it that simple? Eat a little more mushroom risotto, and live a bit longer?
Researchers say the takeaways here require more research. Meantime, they said they found that certain varieties of mushrooms have sky-high amounts of ergothioneine and glutathione, while others are lower--albeit still higher than most other foods have.
The top variety for antioxidants? Porcini mushrooms.
"The porcini has the highest, by far, of any we tested. This species is really popular in Italy, where searching for it has become a national pastime," says study author Robert Beelman, who is professor emeritus of food science and director of the Penn State Center for Plant and Mushroom Products for Health.
"It's preliminary," Beelman continues, "but you can see that countries that have more ergothioneine in their diets, countries like France and Italy, also have lower incidences of neurodegenerative diseases, while people in countries like the United States, which has low amounts of ergothioneine in the diet, have a higher probability of diseases like Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's."
Beelman is careful to say they don't know for sure whether the relationship between the incidence of these aging-related diseases is correlative or causative.
"But it's something to look into, especially because the difference between the countries with low rates of neurodegenerative diseases is about 3 milligrams per day, which is about five button mushrooms each day," he adds.