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DG #52 preview: Who wants to live forever?

Longevity enthusiast Bryan Johnson. Photo: Magdalena Wosinska

The 52nd issue of Delayed Gratification features an article by associate editor Matthew Lee about the rapidly growing longevity industry, in particular the scientists and researchers hoping to find a cure for the human ageing process. Rob Orchard speaks to Matthew about whether we’re on the verge of a scientific breakthrough that transforms life as we know it.

Rob Orchard: Why did you want to write about this topic?
Matthew Lee: I remember reading a think piece almost 20 years ago about how we will be able to live to 1,000 – it’s still available to view. The concept of preventing or curing ageing hadn’t crossed my mind until then. It’s such a radical idea, like something out of a sci-fi novel, and although I’m instinctively sceptical I don’t think that the scientist who wrote that piece, Dr Aubrey de Grey, and other so-called ‘radical life-extensionists’ are essentially flat-earthers, pushing mad theories that have been categorically debunked. There’s something to it, and in the last few years we’ve seen so much private money – especially from Silicon Valley billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Sam Altman and Peter Thiel – going to organisations that have the stated goal of extending the human lifespan. It feels as though huge technological leaps and huge Big Tech money are shifting ideas that once seemed fantastical towards the mainstream, and I wanted to see what people are saying and thinking about inside the longevity industry.

RO: In August you went to a conference in Dublin organised by Dr Aubrey de Grey. What was it like?
ML: It was mostly very normal, pretty standard conference fare. There were lots of scientists and researchers talking about the biology of human ageing, much of which, as a layperson, went over my head. But on a few occasions I saw speakers say really extraordinary things, even if nothing quite matched Aubrey de Grey claiming there’s a 50 percent chance that in the next 13 years we’ll reach ‘longevity escape velocity’ – the moment when anti-ageing treatments are so advanced that we’ll add 60 seconds or more to our lifespan for every minute we’re alive. One person spoke enthusiastically about the benefits of signing up to be cryogenically frozen, while another explained that a group of longevity enthusiasts were trying to establish a “death-optional” city-state off the coast of Honduras. One speaker made the argument that regulators who are preventing trials for experimental and potentially risky anti-ageing treatments due to overcautiousness were basically guilty of mass murder, that regulation is leading to millions of preventable deaths. Something that really came across was the idea that curing ageing was a great humanitarian challenge, that for most people involved in longevity this is less about living forever than it is about ending human suffering.

RO: Did everyone at the Dublin conference think that humans can live to 1,000?
ML: No, not at all. There are plenty of people working in the longevity field who think that increasing healthspan – the period of our lives in which we live in good health – is a much more sensible and realistic goal than trying to indefinitely increase lifespan. I met people who thought that 150 might one day be achievable but that talking about living to 1,000 was sending out the wrong message, that this is a fringe, kooky thing rather than something grounded in reality. There are also gerontologists, scientists who study ageing, who think that the idea of humans living to 150 is absurd, never mind 1,000.

RO: Do you think that we can cure ageing?
ML: I don’t know! But one of the people I spoke to in Dublin, the biologist and writer Andrew Steele (whose book Ageless was a big help in understanding the fundamentals of ageing science) is confident that there will be some significant breakthroughs in the next few decades that slow the ageing process. With the first big breakthrough your chances of living long enough to see the second big breakthrough increase, and after that, who knows? However, the final person I interviewed for the article, a sceptical American gerontologist who thinks that all the speakers in Dublin were drinking the Kool-Aid, is absolutely certain that a human will never live to 150 because regardless of any scientific advances we may make our bodies cannot escape the facts of evolution and natural selection. So maybe we won’t cure ageing, but if we reach the point where most people live well into to their nineties and they’re healthy and active until the very end of their lives, that sounds like a good result to me.

You can read the full feature by Matthew Lee in issue 52 of Delayed Gratification, available from our online shop here.

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