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Sunday, May 2, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Scientist tested diet in Biosphere 2

Los Angeles Times

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LOS ANGELES — Dr. Roy Walford, 79, the free-spirited UCLA gerontologist who pioneered the idea of restricting food intake to extend life span and practiced the concept rigorously in an effort to live to 120, has died of complications from Lou Gehrig's disease.

Although he was an accomplished scientist, with more than 330 scientific papers and eight books to his credit, Dr. Walford probably was better known for the two-year stint he spent with seven other adventurers in Biosphere 2, a self-contained human terrarium near Tucson, Ariz.

Dr. Walford died Tuesday at UCLA/Santa Monica Hospital. Although the causes of his disease, formally known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, are not completely known, Dr. Walford attributed it to environmental problems suffered during his confinement in Biosphere 2. He believed that his rigorous diet, on which he consumed only 1,600 calories per day, extended his survival after the symptoms of the disease appeared several years ago.

On a typical day, he had a low-fat milkshake, a banana, some yeast and some berries for breakfast; a large salad for lunch; and fish, a baked sweet potato and some vegetables for dinner.

Dr. Walford alternated years of intensive laboratory research on mice with yearlong sabbaticals in which he walked across India in a loincloth measuring the rectal temperatures of holy men, traversing the African continent on foot, and living in Biosphere 2.

He told the Los Angeles Times in 2002 that he found it useful to break up his intense years of research "with dangerous and eccentric activities."

Working at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the 1960s, he found that restricting the caloric intake of mice by about 40 percent could nearly double their life spans.

That seminal work has subsequently been replicated in a variety of species, including primates.

Dr. Walford got an inadvertent chance to test his theories in humans when he became a member of the Biosphere 2 team, a 3-acre, glass-enclosed structure built to see whether humans could live in a self-sustaining environment on another planet, such as Mars.

Soon after they entered Biosphere 2 in 1991, the group realized that they couldn't grow enough food to provide a normal diet. Dr. Walford persuaded them to adopt a near-starvation regimen: vegetables and a half-glass of goat's milk every day, meat or fish once a week.

They didn't exactly flourish, but they did get healthier. Men lost nearly 20 percent of their body weight, and women about 10 percent. Their blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and triglyceride levels all fell by at least 20 percent to extremely healthful levels.

But nitrous oxide, produced by microorganisms in the soil, rose to dangerous levels, and the crew suffered periods when the oxygen level was unusually low. Dr. Walford later speculated that both problems caused the death of brain cells and led to his disease.

Dr. Walford was born in San Diego in 1924. He matriculated at California Technical Institute and worked on his medical degree at the University of Chicago.

After graduating, he and a friend wanted to sail around the world. Lacking a boat and the money to buy one, they decided to try gambling.

Analyzing roulette wheels, they found that each had its own idiosyncrasy, with certain numbers appearing more often than others. With $200 in borrowed money, they attacked Las Vegas and Reno, and came away with $42,000, which allowed them to purchase the yacht of their dreams.

The pair sailed the Caribbean for 18 months until their money ran out.

Dr. Walford met and married Martha Sylvia Schwalb while he was in Chicago, and they had three children. The couple divorced after 20 years. Along with his children, Dr. Walford's survivors include two granddaughters.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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