Would you like to live forever?
Sooner rather than later, this may be a question you’ll need to answer. Truly. Because it’ll be an option — for you and everyone else.
In particular, if you’re a millennial — i.e., if you’re 40 or under — you have a good chance of staying young and healthy forever. No bullshit. Experts and futurists call it longevity science. What once was science fiction, now looks more like our near future.
Just don’t call it immortality. The leading minds in the field of life-extension medicine and biotechnology hate that term. They’re not chasing immortality. That’s impossible. Immortality is the province of gods and monsters, not us mere mortals.
Instead, researchers are busy inventing and innovating new medical therapies that will allow us to stay young and healthy for possibly thousands of years. In fact, last year, a paper published in Nature promised that there may be no natural limit for a human lifespan.
So again, are you ready to be forever young?
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Generally speaking, there are two schools of thought on how we will reach the Methuselarity of eternal life: One side is best represented by Aubrey de Grey, a gerontologist, author of Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime and chief science officer at SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence), a nonprofit he co-founded to function as a research hub for longevity science. It’s smartly located in Palo Alto, right in the center of the hive of tech companies — that rare spot on Earth home to an inordinate number of billionaire investors and ego-driven geniuses.
The other side is best represented by Bill Faloon, an advocate for longevity research, co-founder of the Life Extension nutritional supplement company and founder of the Church of Perpetual Life in Hollywood, Florida. It’s a beacon for silver heads that don’t want to die. Many people online think Faloon is a charlatan, a patent medicine-selling con man. Yet, an equal number think he’s fully legit, an irresistible force pushing this nascent field of science forward with his generous support of research.
“This all started around 2014, when an amalgamation of published studies revealed that we had an opportunity to slow and/or reverse biological aging,” Faloon tells me when we speak on the phone. “When they restarted the parabiosis research, connecting an old mouse to a young mouse, we saw the older mouse grow younger. At the same time, the younger mice — as a virtue of all that old blood circulating — accelerated their aging process. So that gave us two important clues that there are some beneficial factors in young plasma and blood that have regenerative capabilities.”
Parabiosis research and the focus it placed on young plasma turned both ideas into buzzwords in the anti-aging community. Case in point: You may have heard of vampiric tech billionaires paying young healthy specimens to directly donate their blood in transfusions designed to roll back their biological clocks. Silicon Valley parodied the practice when it had the founder of the fictional tech company Hooli take a meeting while he got a fresh transfusion from a blood boy named Bryce.
Faloon, however, is far from a bandwagon jumper in this world. “I started the life-extension group back in 1977,” he says with a hint of pride. “The idea was to raise money to fund research to produce the kind of results we’re seeing today. It wasn’t until 1980, when we began publishing Anti-Aging News, that we started to attract a little bit of attention. Then, as the science evolved, we got on very popular programs such as The Merv Griffin Show. It generated a lot of interest in taking dietary supplements as a way to slow down aging.”
I ask Faloon why he wants to live forever.
“Because I enjoy living everyday,” he responds.
More to the point, he also has a major fear of death.
“[I’m] as scared as someone would be if they were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told they have less than six months to live. As scared as someone who’s on an airplane they were told was gonna crash in 30 minutes,” he explains. “I fear not being here. I fear missing out on an incredible future. Our standard of living now is so much better than it was 40 years ago, 80 years ago. It’s night and day in many respects.”
To reach his chance at eternal life will take some serious effort, because Faloon is already 64 years old. He’ll need a little help from his friends. And lots of vitamin pills: “I take the equivalent — between the supplements, the off-label drugs and the hormones — of about 100 pills a day. Some of them are very concentrated, so one or two of those pills might equal five or six of what people typically would take.”
He also restricts his daily calories, as there’s a growing body of research that indicates calorie restriction increases longevity as it reduces oxidative damage and inflammation in the body, two chief sources of aging. Calorie restriction also signals to the body to run more efficiently and to repair cellular damage. “I intermittently fast most days between 12 and 18 hours, which for me isn’t difficult. Essentially, eight hours of the day I’ll consume some calories, and for 12 to 16 hours, I’ll just eat nothing.”
It’s curious to me how he’s willing to make his day-to-day life way less enjoyable just so that he can live longer. He’s willing to sacrifice quality of life for quantity of life. Somehow, this seems very American. It also doesn’t stop at calorie restriction.
“I replace hormones lost to aging such as testosterone and DHEA,” Faloon explains. “I have my blood comprehensively tested on a routine basis. That’s to optimize everything I’m doing. I’m gonna keep my LDL down very low. I’m gonna keep my fasting insulin down very low. I look at all the blood parameters that relate to inflammation and that relate to immune status. I make adjustments to my program to optimize those blood levels.”
I ask Faloon if his zeal to live forever has pushed him to become that cautionary tale in science: a self-experimenter?
“Absolutely,” he answers. “I’ve done, I think, virtually everything out there that people are either proposing to do or are doing right now. I’ve done the NAD+ infusions. I’ve done the Dasatinib-Quercetin senolytic protocol. I’ve mobilized my own stem cells using cancer medications to motivate my bone marrow to produce more youthful stem cells. I’ve done quite a bit of what we’ve recommended. Of course, I’ve been on Metformin since around 2000.”
These are some serious drugs. Dasatinib is a chemotherapy drug. As Faloon mentioned, he combines it with Quercetin, “a plant flavonol from the flavonoid group of polyphenols.” Taken together in clinical trials, the drug cocktail was shown to extend the life of lab mice by 36 percent. Metformin is a diabetes drug, but after Faloon saw that it exhibited signs of anti-aging properties, he added it to his daily regimen.
“A lot of people order it offshore, but I get it prescribed as an anti-aging diabetic prevention/anti-cancer type medication. There’s good literature now to support using Metformin for people who are pre-diabetic. But I believe anyone over a certain age has insulin-resistance syndrome, and they’re not optimizing their glucose levels. So we advise anyone who can tolerate potential GI side effects of Metformin to ask their doctor to prescribe it.” (About 20 percent of the people who take Metformin get the shits.)
Obviously Faloon is a straightforward guy about his goal of not dying. But he’s cagier about the reason he has such a conflicted reputation online. In particular, he’s been accused of misbehavior by the federal government on more than one occasion. First, the FDA came after him for his nutritional supplement business. Faloon, however, is nothing if not a fighter, and so, he countersued. After nine long years of litigation, he won. Next, the IRS came after him. In 2013, the agency revoked his Life Extension Foundation’s nonprofit tax-exempt status. The next year, Faloon opened the doors of his Church for Perpetual Life. His critics say these things are related.
“They’re not related at all,” he protests. “I mean the church is something that acts as a place for people to meet and talk about doing things together. The church doesn’t fund any research. It doesn’t even garner much in the way of revenue from the patrons.”
Founded in 2014, the Church of Perpetual Life holds monthly services. Typically, a scientist is invited to speak. Possibly a researcher offers the crowd a presentation on their latest work. Then Faloon takes the podium and gives an update on any exciting news in longevity research. Although sometimes there’s music, his church doesn’t exactly offer a religious experience.
“We do believe that there was a creator,” Faloon says. “He endowed mankind with the ability to develop technologies that will facilitate the transformation of life into an era of perpetual abundance. So the church has been an incredible vehicle to bring people together face-to-face, and spend four or five hours interacting.”
In a video from the Church of Perpetual Life, I notice that Faloon has invited Aubrey de Grey to speak to his flock of faithful death-defiers. This strikes me as incongruous. It doesn’t seem like the two men would get along. Faloon is afraid of death and never wants to give up life; de Grey is a far more practical, straightforward man of science. You don’t suspect that he’s afraid of dying as much as he is desirous of living young and healthy for as long as he can. Nor does de Grey seem to let his goal of living longer rob him of life’s simplest pleasures. For instance, in the video below, de Grey sits for a Q&A with a 22-ounce beer in hand. In short, Bill Faloon is focused on death; Aubrey de Grey is focused on life.
Despite these differences, though, Faloon is a big de Grey fan. “He’s doing some great animal research,” Faloon tells me. “But Aubrey’s somewhat younger than I am. I’m 64 years of age. I think Aubrey’s about nine years younger. I don’t think he’s in as much of a hurry as I am to reverse aging in people. So I appreciate the work Aubrey’s done. He’s put his entire net worth into getting SENS off the ground. And he’s reliant on donations. It’s very challenging for him.”
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Arguably the most influential mind in the field of longevity science, Aubrey de Grey first made international headlines when he claimed that humans would soon live to 1,000, or possibly, 5,000 years. This was decried as ludicrous. Science fiction! Fantasy! Since then, however, de Grey has changed his opinion: Now he says there is no limit to how long we can live. We could live for as long as luck allows.
Hearing this from a gerontologist is highly unexpected. It’s certainly unorthodox. And, of course, it’s earned him scowls and disappointed looks from his more serious colleagues. But as roughly a decade passed, science backed up de Grey’s claims. What once was a laughably preposterous idea has now moved into the mainstream. Longevity is now a serious field of study — mostly thanks to the intellectual persistence of Aubrey de Grey.
As the co-founder and Chief Science Officer of SENS, he’s regularly invited by VC billionaires to give presentations on his latest work. For instance, here’s a video of him giving a talk at Google. Silicon Valley nerds and biomedicine geeks love to flock to hear him speak. He’s a brilliant, iconoclastic man. And he’s made it his life’s mission to ensure that common people like you and I can understand the promise of his work and the potential of longevity medicine.
Essentially, de Grey sees a near-limitless potential of our bodies to fix themselves. To that end, imagine a restored ‘57 Chevy, a thunderous beauty that’s perfectly refurbished, shined-up and looking and sounding the same way it did the day it rolled off the showroom floor. Now imagine doing that to a Model T. And with a ‘32 Roadster. Or any car for that matter. The work required to restore them would be different, naturally, but the general idea would be the same.
This is what de Grey wants medicine to do for you — get you back to showroom-floor quality. So rather than optimize how our bodies run, which is the modern medical industry’s approach, as well as the supplemental-pill industry’s approach, rather than chase after better and more powerful antioxidants, de Grey focuses on a simple goal: to remove and repair damage. The same as you would if you restored a ‘57 Chevy.
“The essential point here is that because the body is a machine — albeit, an extremely complicated machine — the approach to maintaining it and getting it in good function late in life should be pretty much the same as it is with simple machines, like cars or whatever,” he explains. “All cars ultimately accumulate rust one way or another. And yet, there are cars that are 100 years old, and they got that way because of preventative maintenance — because of periodic repair of that damage before it rose to the level where the doors fell off, or anything like that.”
Is it difficult, though, to get his audiences and investors to understand the importance of this shift in how we conceptualize our thinking about anti-aging medicine?
“Well, as with so many of the things I have to explain to people, there’s a wide spectrum of readiness to understand the explanation. So at the end of the day, I just try to demystify things. Some people used to say, ‘Well, the difference is the diseases of old age — some people get some of them, some people get others, whereas aging itself is universal.’ But that’s nonsense. We all know that the effects of aging — what we call aging itself — occur at different ages in different people.”
He’s proven convincing. “Over the past 10 years — or even over the past five years — things certainly have become easier to talk about,” he says. “People are, generally, much more open to having a conversation about this and trying to accept the possibility that they might have a misunderstanding of the inevitability of aging. It’s become socially and intellectually legitimate to believe that aging might eventually be brought under medical control.”
Plus, the idea that we can delay aging by swapping out our figurative spark plugs and carburetors isn’t such a tough sell to younger generations. To wit, de Grey tells me that twenty- and thirtysomethings have been eager supporters and investors of his. In fact, the number one donor at SENS over the last 12 months was 25-year-old Vitalik Buterin, the creator of the cryptocurrency Ethereum. He’s fully onboard with longevity science.
“The thing is, a lot of these people — certainly Vitalik is one of them — never had to close their minds about this,” de Grey explains. “They never grew up thinking that aging is inevitable, natural and probably a blessing in disguise. They never made peace with aging in the first place. I mean, Vitalik read my book when he was 14. So they have a much easier time knowing that this is common sense.”
Unlike Faloon, who imagines life-extension treatment protocols dependent on re-appropriating cancer drugs to stimulate bone marrow, de Grey looks to teach the human body new ways to repair itself. Teach a man to fish, so to speak — instead of, you know, feeding him drugs and fish.
A perfect example of de Grey’s approach is how he borrowed the idea of bacterial remediation, which is typically used to clean up toxic sites, and applied it to cellular clean up. His idea: Find bacteria that can do the job you want done; then replicate it, and give that skill to human cells via gene therapy. In one instance, researchers replicated a bacterium’s genes; next, they plan to add it to a person’s white blood cells, thereby giving the body’s immune system the skillset of the replicated bacterium’s gene.
“We haven’t done this yet,” de Grey says, quick to clarify. “That’s the eventual goal. White blood cells invade the artery wall in an attempt to clean it up. And that’s perfectly normal. They succeed in cleaning it up, by in large. Most of the stuff that accumulates in the artery wall is perfectly well digestible by normal, unmodified white blood cells. But 7-keto cholesterol is not. It’s not appropriately metabolized, and therefore, it accumulates inside these white blood cells.”
As a result, the white blood cells grow fatty with the ingested cholesterol. They eventually lose functionality and become toxic. Meanwhile, left unchecked, cholesterol builds up on the artery wall. If scientists, however, can identify bacteria that can break down 7-keto cholesterol, as well as replicate the bacteria’s genes in white blood cells, your body could naturally remove it. No drugs necessary.
This is de Grey’s idea of anti-aging therapy.
“This same principle applies elsewhere for different aspects of aging,” he promises.
Specifically, de Grey has identified what he calls the “7 Deadly Things,” a comprehensive list of all the factors that lead to death due to what we think of as age-related conditions. Those seven things:
- Cell loss/atrophy
- Division-obsessed cells
- Death-resistant cells
- Mitochondrial mutations
- Intracellular waste products
- Extracellular waste products
- Extracellular matrix stiffening
But how many of them does de Grey currently have a proposed approach to combat?
“If you’re talking about proposed approaches, we’ve got them through all seven,” he says. The aim, though, is to go beyond the hypothetical and be ready to deliver human clinical trials by 2021, an initiative SENS calls Project|21 and a date de Grey still believes SENS can deliver on. “Quite a few of them are already in clinical trials. So there’s not really a lot left,” he says. “We’re reasonably confident that everything will be in some kind of clinical trial by 2021. Except possibly mitochondrial mutations, but even that’s going quite well now, which means we can be optimistic.”
That said: “What we don’t say in Project|21 is that the entire kit-n-caboodle will be available and in clinical trials as a combination therapy. The process of combining these individual therapies into something that works across the whole spectrum of aging is something that will take a number of years.”
Still, when they arrive, the first phase of therapies should buy us some time. Initially, we’ll be living 10, 20, 30 years longer. Then, as new treatments and therapies are invented and innovated, we’ll continue to extend our life expectancy. Until, eventually, we can repair and remove any and all damage, and live young and healthy for as long as we wish.
Obviously none of us knows what hand fate or chance will play, but based on these projected life-span increases, does de Grey himself expect to benefit from the initial 10- or 20-year extension?
“I’d say I’ve got about a 50/50 chance,” he says. “But the key thing I want to emphasize is that that’s not what gets me out of the bed in the morning. I obviously know that my work hastening the defeat of aging is improving my own chances of making the cut, but the humanitarian benefit is easier to get out of bed for, because now we’re talking about 100,000 people dying of aging every single day. And therefore, every single day, I can save the equivalent of 30 World Trade Centers.”
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There is an inevitable cynicism to all of this life saving, though. Namely: Won’t it just benefit the rich — particularly our tech overlords? The idea definitely intrigues them. Oracle founder Larry Ellison, for example, has invested $430 million into longevity research. His motivation was simple: “Death makes me very angry.” Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos has pumped hundreds of millions of his Amazon fortune into a company called Unity Biotechnology. And the potential for a limitless life expectancy makes Peter Thiel as excited as the day he shuttered Gawker.
For what it’s worth, de Grey refuses to give in to this cynicism. “People think that this is going to be a terrible problem. The reason they think that is because of how expensive medicine is for the elderly. Today, we basically have nothing that keeps people healthy late in life, which means that it’s just a large amount of money down the drain. But it would be economically suicidal for any country, even a tax-averse country like the USA, not to ensure that these things were available, irrespective of ability to pay.”
He relies on the mercenary math of economics to make his case: Any nation that doesn’t extend the lives of its citizens will lose wave after wave of highly valuable adults. Plus, that nation’s annual healthcare costs would skyrocket in comparison. Purely out of self-interest then, nations will be forced to make these medical advances available to all. At least, that’s de Grey’s argument. Imho, all of human history would suggest otherwise.
Before I let him go, I also ask him about his own marker of age — i.e., the impressive whiskers that he keeps. It’s funny to me that he carries around this Gandalf-like physical representation of the long passage of time. Despite his vision of perpetuating youth, is his super-long beard meant to signify an elder’s gravitas? Does he find it helpful in convincing others of what he’s promising, which seems so magical?
“Different people compare me with lots of other people with beards,” he responds. “Sometimes it’s Rasputin. Sometimes it’s Moses. But I grew the beard because my ex-wife wanted me to. It wasn’t anything to do with having an image. It has, of course, become a bit of a trademark. And it’s been valuable in the sense that it emphasizes that I’m not in this for financial gain. That’s an important thing for me to communicate to people in order to make sure that they trust what I have to say. Beyond that, it doesn’t make a lot of difference.”
Yet he does believe that at some point enough aging sets in to make us less likely to listen to what he’s saying, instead, feeling resigned to our fate — a slow march toward death. He’s termed it the “pro-aging trance.”
“I call it that to get people to see that they need to examine whether they, themselves, are in a trance. You know, whether they, themselves, have any logical basis for the thinking they’re expressing. When someone is hypnotized, they’re in a rather curious state where they will believe absolutely anything, and they will offer explanations that, to them, sound logical even though in practice, they’re not logical at all. So, it’s a fantastically strange phenomenon — the popular notion that getting old and dying is actually a good thing.”
Sounds pretty weird when put that way, huh? The good news is de Grey may soon be able to snap us out of our trance and keep our bodies perfectly youthful and healthy for thousands of years.
Then the question becomes, what will we do with all that life?