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David Murdock Wants You to Live Forever

In a struggling North Carolina mill town, the billionaire is spending a fortune to help himself — and others — avoid the diseases of aging

En español l "I think anyone who wants to live past 100 can do it," says billionaire businessman David Murdock. This brash pronouncement is surprising for someone with Murdock's family history; he has lost many loved ones before their time. Murdock's mother died of cancer at age 42, and two of his three children died before they reached 40. His two siblings died in their 60s. And Gabriele, his beloved third wife and the mother of his children, died of ovarian cancer at 43.

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David Murdock at Kannapolis campus in NC

David Murdock is on a quest to find the secret to longevity. — Peter Yang

Yet these losses have not dimmed Murdock's hopes of living long and living well. If anything, they have fueled them. Murdock — a self-made real estate titan who chairs the board of Dole Food Company — just turned 90, and he believes that the nutrients in fruits, vegetables, seeds and husks hold the key to longevity. "I never think about age at all," he says, sitting on a red silk couch in his two-story Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park. "I just think about what I eat."

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Murdock's marble-topped coffee table is strewn with books on nutrition. His zealous faith in the power of healthy eating has become his own personal gospel. And now that gospel is guiding his life's great mission: to help science defeat death, and to resurrect a dying town in the process.

Over coffee mellowed with almond milk, Murdock, the country's 213th- richest man, admits that he wasn't always a healthy eater. "I used to think nothing of eating a quart of whipped cream on top of strawberries," he says. But when German-born Gabriele, a painter and patron of the arts, was diagnosed with cancer in 1983, he reconsidered. During the year and a half the couple spent at the Mayo Clinic while Gabriele endured radiation, chemotherapy and surgery — her lush brown hair thinning and her luminous skin turning ashen — Murdock grasped for ways to help her survive, including serving her more fresh foods. Eventually he came to suspect that a healthier diet might have prevented her illness. After Gabriele died in 1985, Murdock turned his grief into a quest to discover all he could about nutrition.

As he read books and interviewed researchers, Murdock changed his diet dramatically. He eliminated red meat — "the kiss of death," as he calls it — and then chicken, too, because they contain saturated fat. Dairy with saturated fat came next. "If someone paid me a million dollars to drink a glass of milk, I wouldn't do it," says the self-described perfectionist, adding cheekily, "maybe that's because I don't need the money." (Murdock bought his first business, a Detroit diner, at age 22 with $1,200 in borrowed money and sold it 18 months later for a $700 profit. Now, after a lifetime of buying, building and selling, his net worth is estimated at $2.4 billion.)

While Murdock was eliminating animal products from his diet, he was also piling on the plants — and not just the parts that the rest of us eat. He consumes every bit of a fruit or vegetable, especially the rinds, because he is convinced that "anything the sun touches has nutritional value in it." Cucumber skins and celery leaves go straight down the hatch; banana peels and pineapple leaves get tossed in the blender for a smoothie. He still eats fish, and occasionally those smoothies also include shrimp tails or sardines with bones.

If seeing is believing, Murdock's unusual diet is paying off. His complexion is bright, his eyes are clear, and he rises from that lavish sofa without effort. His pinstripe suit loosely drapes his 5-foot-8-inch frame, with the most minor of love handles interrupting an otherwise taut physique. Murdock rises by 4:30 a.m. and exercises daily — though "I don't think I twist enough," he says, his voice gravelly but forceful, as if he's issuing a command. And his mind is sharp. "I can memorize five pages of balance sheets," he says — a compensation for his lifelong dyslexia. Occasionally he'll admit to not remembering something. "But," he jokes, "that's usually just an excuse to avoid something."

Inspired by his findings on how nutrition can improve health, Murdock went on to coauthor an encyclopedic book on the subject with professionals from the Mayo Clinic and UCLA in 2001. But apart from that, he limited his proselytizing on healthy eating to friends and family. He never expected to create an entire research facility that would serve as a pulpit for his views. But, due to an accident of real estate, that is what happened.

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