Walford is credited with significantly furthering aging research by his discovery that laboratory mice, when fed a diet that restricted their caloric intake by 50% yet maintaining nutritional requirements, almost doubled their expected life span.
He received his medical degree from the University of Chicago in 1948. He completed his internship at Gorgas Hospital, Panama, and served his residency at the V.A. Medical Center in Los Angeles. He then served two years in the US Air Force during the Korean War.
Walford joined the faculty at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1954. He became a Professor of Pathology at the UCLA School of Medicine in 1966. He became Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Emeritus, for UCLA, when he left to join the crew of Biosphere 2 in 1991.
While at UCLA, Walford served in the following roles:Director of the Blood Bank and of the Hematology Division of the Clinical Laboratories (1959–1980)Director of the School of Medical Technology (1962–1972)Chairman of the Vivarium Committee (1965–1968)
In addition to his service at UCLA, he was an expert advisor in immunology for the World Health Organization from 1969 to 1984, was a senatorial delegate to the White House Conference on Aging in 1981, and a member of the National Institute on Aging.
His honors and awards include:Levine Award of the American Society of Clinical PathologyResearch Award of the American Aging AssociationKleemeier Award from the Gerontological Society of AmericaHenderson Award from the American Geriatrics Society1998 Longevity Prize of the Fondation IPSENThe Senator Alan Cranston AwardInfinity Award of the American Academy of Anti-Aging MedicineAsteroid #4629 was named after him by its discoverer (E. Helene) in 1986
Walford and his work were featured in print in dozens of articles in popular publications such as Omni, Discover, and Scientific American. During his life he also made dozens of featured appearances on various television shows.
In 1947, while on vacation during medical school, Walford and Albert Hibbs, a mathematics graduate student, used statistical analysis of biased roulette wheels to "break the bank" in Reno. They tracked the results of the spins, determined which wheels were biased, and then bet heavily on the ones which were unbalanced. The casinos eventually realized that Walford and his friend knew what they were doing and threw them out. A Life Magazine photographer captured the pair drinking milk and counting their chips in a photograph published in the December 8, 1947 issue. Their methods were also mentioned in the roulette book The Eudaemonic Pie by Thomas Bass. Different sources have the pair winning anywhere from $6,500 to $42,000. The high end is more likely, as Walford was reputed to have paid for part of his medical school education and a house from his winnings. The pair also bought a yacht and sailed the Caribbean for over a year.
In 1981, Walford began a commercial collaboration with fellow researchers Richard Weindruch and Kathleen Yankee Hall, and her husband William Hall, a wealthy businessman. In her tribute after his death, Kathleen Hall wrote of Walford, "we both threw in a few thousand dollars and started a small business together." Incorporated in California as Gerontix, the company was to sell supplements intended to improve health and increase life span. The first Gerontix product was butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), with lysine and zinc, which was sold in capsules and marketed as a treatment for herpes. Motivated by the success of the bestselling book Life Extension: A Practical Scientific Approach, by Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw, the group intended to sell a package of products, called MaxiLife, which would capitalize on the release of Walford's book, Maximum Life Span. It was expected that Walford, a highly publicized researcher, would experience the same success as Pearson and Shaw. Before Walford's book was published and Gerontix started to manufacture its coordinated products, the manufacturer Twin Labs began to sell a single multi-ingredient supplement called MaxiLIFE. Despite the potential for trademark conflict, the Gerontix group elected to proceed with plans to use the name. Twin Labs brought suit against Gerontix for trademark infringement, which it won in 1984. Before the resolution of the lawsuit, the Gerontix MaxiLife products were brought to market and sold poorly, partly because of the lackluster sales of Walford's book. Lack of success in federal court and in health food stores led to the demise of Gerontix.
In Appendix B of Walford's Maximum Life Span he noted, "Additional additives, such as antioxidants and some of the other materials I've listed in Chapters 7 and 8, can be obtained from Gerontix Biological Research Products...," but he did not disclose that he would profit from the sale of Gerontix products. The company's MaxiLife product brochure, which refers to Walford and his research, also makes no mention of his connection to Gerontix.
Walford was one of the eight “crew members” who were sealed inside Biosphere 2 where they lived from September 26, 1991 to September 26, 1993. Walford served as the crew's physician. During his stay in Biosphere 2, the crew found that they could not grow as much food as anticipated, so Walford convinced the crew to follow his calorie restriction diet. It is claimed that this action “produced dramatic weight loss and improved health.” Despite this, in November of the first year the crew decided to open a cache of emergency food supplies grown outside of the bubble to supplement their meager diets.
Walford's death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) has provoked consideration about whether his practice of caloric restriction (CR) may have contributed to, or accelerated, his development of the disease. Research on a transgenic mouse model of ALS demonstrates that CR may hasten the onset of death in ALS. Hamadeh et al. therefore concluded, "These results suggest that CR diet is not a protective strategy for patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and hence is contraindicated." Hamadeh et al. also note two human studies that show "low energy intake correlates with death in people with ALS." However, in the first study, Slowie, Paige, and Antel state, "The reduction in energy intake by ALS patients did not correlate with the proximity of death but rather was a consistent aspect of the illness." They conclude, "ALS patients have a chronically deficient intake of energy and recommended augmentation of energy intake."
Previously, Pedersen and Mattson found that in the ALS mouse model, CR "accelerates the clinical course" of the disease and had no benefits. Suggesting that a calorically dense diet may slow ALS, a ketogenic diet in the ALS mouse model has been shown to slow the progress of disease. More recently, Mattson et al. opine that the death by ALS of Roy Walford, a pioneer in CR research and its antiaging effects, may have been a result of his own practice of CR. However, as Mattson et al. acknowledge, Walford's single case is insufficient to establish the proposed a cause-effect relation.
Walford himself speculated that his disease may have been caused by the combination of chronic hypoxia and exposure to carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide in Biosphere 2.
According to Walford's friend and colleague, Kathleen Hall, his diagnosis of ALS came as a result of her urging him to see a physician when she noticed "the strangeness in Roy's gait." She says that before his death Walford "continued writing, taking courses on film production. He had me all over New York and in Dallas for just the right production shots." Meanwhile, Hall remembers that "Roy and I together with his daughter, Lisa, and his friends exhausted all the literature, looking for a cure, a solution. I found myself scouting the alleys of Chinatown in New York searching out a particular mushroom, looking for the best grass to help him through the pain." Even before developing ALS, Walford was no stranger to "grass." In his book Eternity Soup: Inside the Quest to End Aging, Greg Critser says that Walford's "consumption of marijuana was legendary."
Walford authored several books, and set out his dietary beliefs in the bestseller Beyond the 120-Year Diet. In addition, he published at least 340 scientific papers, mainly focused on the biology of aging.
Walford authored or co-authored the following books:R. L. Walford (1960). Leukocyte Antigens and Antibodies. New York: Grune and Stratton, Inc. R. L. Walford (1969). The Isoantigenic Systems of Human Leukocytes: Medical and Biological Significance. Series Haematologica 2. 2. Copenhagen: Munksgaard. pp. 1–96. R. L. Walford (1969). The Immunological Theory of Aging. Copenhagen: Munksgaard. R. L. Walford (1983). Maximum Life Span. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0-380-65524-1. R. L. Walford (1986). The 120-Year Diet. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-671-64904-3. R. H. Weindruch and R. L. Walford (1988). The Retardation of Aging and Disease by Dietary Restriction. New York: Charles C. Thomas. R. L. Walford and Lisa J. Walford (1994). The Anti-Aging Plan. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows. ISBN 1-56924-383-2. R. L. Walford (2000). Beyond The 120-Year Diet. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows. ISBN 1-56858-157-2.