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Who wants to live forever?

Bryan Johnson spends about $2m a year in a bid to reverse the ageing process, but not everyone is happy about a “kooky tech tycoon” being the poster child for the longevity movement

Bryan Johnson spends about $2m a year in a bid to reverse the ageing process, but not everyone is happy about a “kooky tech tycoon” being the poster child for the longevity movement. Photo: Magdalena Wosinska

“The first 1,000-year-old is probably only around ten years younger than the first 150-year-old”.

The main hall of a Dublin convention centre seems a distinctly low-key backdrop for the claim that we might live into our second millenniums. But that’s exactly what the scientist in front of the bold proclamation on the big screen is claiming. The bearded researcher tells delegates that due to technological advances we’re probably on the cusp of the most transformational development in the history of our species: the indefinite postponement of death.

While many researchers of the human ageing process have more modest ambitions – aiming to add on a few extra years of good health, for example – the LEV Foundation, the organiser of Longevity Summit Dublin, seeks to develop treatments that will prevent and even reverse human ageing. Such treatments don’t exist yet, but in the lobby of the Dublin Royal Convention Centre various companies offer products and services which they claim will help people live longer healthier lives, including “glycan-based biological age blood-testing kits”, “decentralised AI-driven longevity research networks” and Irish oyster extract pills offering “nutrition ammunition for biohackers!”

The self-proclaimed ‘visionary biomedical gerontologist’ talking about 1,000-year-olds onstage is the LEV Foundation’s founder, Aubrey de Grey. LEV stands for ‘longevity escape velocity’, which is the term he uses to describe the moment at which the sought-after treatments become so effective that you gain more than a year of extra life for every year you spend living. The spiritual leader of the ‘radical life-extensionist’ faction of ageing science, de Grey says that there’s a 50 percent chance we’ll end ageing by 2036. He refers to that moment, when we gain more than 60 seconds of extended lifespan for every minute we live, as the ‘Methuselarity’, after the hirsute biblical patriarch from the Book of Genesis who is said to have died aged 969, and is possibly the inspiration for de Grey’s own exuberant beard.

Aubrey de Grey, head of the LEV Foundation (left), on stage at Longevity Summit Dublin

Aubrey de Grey, head of the LEV Foundation (left), on stage at Longevity Summit Dublin. Photo: Longevity Events

The 60-year-old English scientist has been making the same argument for over 20 years – ageing is a disease that can be cured. It is barbaric and uncivilised, and with millions of people suffering from age-related diseases every day, there’s a moral imperative to find the cure. The Dublin conference marks something of a comeback for him. In August 2021 two women in the longevity field, Celine Halioua and Laura Deming, accused de Grey of sexual harassment. He was suspended by SENS, the California-based anti-ageing research foundation he co-founded, and in March 2022 the organisation said that the separation would be permanent. It added that while an independent investigation had substantiated “instances of poor judgement and boundary-crossing behaviours”, de Grey was “not a sexual predator.” Instead, it claimed that his ejection from SENS was related to his unwillingness to comply with an agreement to get evaluated and treated for substance abuse. De Grey said that SENS only raised his alcohol consumption after “failing to get rid of me on the basis of fabricated sexual allegations.”

I didn’t hear anyone at the Dublin conference question de Grey’s suitability as a figurehead for the longevity movement. While his beliefs have made him a figure of ridicule to some people, to most radical life-extensionists he’s a kind of secular prophet. And the expectation among the attendees at this Irish summit is that his ideas, once dismissed as outlandish, are on the verge of going mainstream.

“It’s a really exciting time to be alive,” says Andrew Steele, scientist and author of Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old. A cure for ageing is scientifically possible, he says, and we’re edging closer to it. He is not a radical life-extensionist like de Grey, but he doesn’t appear to be ruling anything out. Sitting on the lawn outside the Dublin venue, he tells me that as a science communicator he sees his task as helping a sceptical public understand that biological ageing is not inevitable. Get the public on board, and there’s a better chance of getting the “massively funded, international programme of research to intervene in the ageing process” that he says is needed.

Potential interventions in ageing come in many forms. The first step for researchers trying to find a cure is to grasp the underlying root causes of the ageing process at the molecular and cellular level, our understanding of which has surged in the past 20 years. In his book, Steele identifies ten ‘hallmarks’ of ageing, which include DNA damage and mutations, malfunctioning mitochondria (the parts of cells that generate the energy to power them), the accumulation of senescent cells (which don’t die off as they should, heightening risk of disease) and the decline of the immune system. With such a  framework established, scientists can begin to try to figure out how to intervene in some of these areas.

Steele puts anti-ageing actions into four broad categories: removing bad things from the body which accumulate with age, putting good things into the body to enhance its defences against disease, fixing things in the body so that they work better, and reprogramming our bodies – altering human biology so that our cells and organs behave differently. Dozens and dozens of potential treatments are discussed in Dublin, and for a layperson sitting through immensely technical talks with titles such as ‘Atypical Senescence in Long-Lived T-Cells’, ‘Highly Predictive Glycan Biomarkers’ and ‘Halting and Reversing Macular Degeneration’, it can sometimes feel like the speakers have already succeeded in slowing down the passage of time. But you don’t need to know your lysosomes from your lymph nodes to get to the crux of the matter: there are all manner of possible interventions, but right now there isn’t any evidence that any of them will safely work on humans.

We want to prolong healthspan – the amount of time we live in good health, not just how long we live”

When Steele introduces the topic to sceptical newcomers he asks them to think about how their risk of death changes over time. “I’m 37 and so my risk of death this year is about one in 1,000,” he says. “But as adults our risk of death doubles about every eight years.” In your nineties, he says, there’s a one in six chance of dying each year. “It’s a roll of the dice. You can either think that the wall of mortality is inevitably coming for me, or you can look at it as a scientist and think, ‘What is it about our biology, the changes going on inside our bodies, that cause us to be at much higher risk of diseases like cancer, heart disease and dementia [when we get older]? Could we understand those changes and find ways to intervene before they happen?’”

The good news is that we’re already experiencing extreme longevity relative to our ancestors. After thousands of years of considering ourselves lucky if we reached 40, global life expectancy at birth has more than doubled over the past two centuries. Since 1850 we’ve gained three months with every passing year, six bonus hours with every day. Steele puts this down largely  to various improvements in the way we live – medical advances, better hygiene and diets, more exercise, less smoking. If this trend continues, a child born this year in a developed nation could expect to live to around 110.

However, living to 110 is a less appealing prospect if it means more time spent in ill health. “This isn’t just about death,” Steele says. “What we in ageing research want to do is prolong healthspan – the amount of time we live in good health, not just how long we live. With diseases like cancer and dementia, there’s often years of suffering… Given that [the ageing process] causes two thirds of deaths, and that these are generally preceded by years of decline and illness, it’s clear to me that this is the greatest cause of human suffering. That’s why I call ageing our greatest humanitarian challenge.”

The social challenge may be tougher than the scientific one, says Steele. Scientists are making progress, but the public remains sceptical – even hostile – when he talks about curing ageing. The same questions always come up: Won’t that cause catastrophic overpopulation? Are we playing God by trying to change the natural order? Isn’t this some weird sci-fi thing that billionaire tech founders chase?

For the first question Steele responds with a ‘reversal test’, designed to eliminate bias towards the status quo. “Imagine you’re living on a planet without ageing along with 20 billion other people,” he says. “We’re consuming far too many resources, the climate’s in huge trouble. How would you solve this problem? If the option of absolute last resort was killing people, would you invent ageing, a decades-long process of disease and decline? I don’t think so.”

As for the second enquiry, Steele tries to reassure people that tackling ageing isn’t that different to curing cancer – it’s just looking to treat many conditions at once rather than individually. But it’s hard to refute the logic behind the final query, especially since the superstar of the longevity space is an ultra-wealthy Silicon Valley guy doing weird sci-fi stuff. Bryan Johnson is a 46-year-old tech entrepreneur who’s spending around $2 million a year – and consuming 111 pills a day – in a heavily publicised bid to slow his ageing process and, he hopes, to permanently cheat death. Every detail and test result from his inordinately regimented life (he calls himself “the most measured man in human history”) is available on his website, the Blueprint, as well as his own brand of olive oil, high in polyphenolic compounds and yours for just $37.50 a bottle.

Longevity enthusiast Bryan Johnson (right) received blood from his teenage son Talmage (left) in an attempt to slow the ageing process

Longevity enthusiast Bryan Johnson (right) received blood from his teenage son Talmage (left) in an attempt to slow the ageing process. Photo: Bryan Johnson

Johnson, who sold his ecommerce company to eBay for $800 million in 2013, is getting press coverage for longevity, but perhaps not always for the right reasons. Earlier this year he attracted headlines after receiving injections of blood from his 17-year-old son, while donating his own blood to his 70-year-old father. The “world’s first multigenerational plasma exchange” ended when he saw “no benefits” from the process. A few weeks later he was back in the news after announcing that he was starting “focused shockwave therapy” to rejuvenate his penis. He wears a tracker on his genitals to measure his nocturnal erections (his target is an average of three and a half hours erect per night) and he updates his followers on his EHS (erectile hardness score), which, he announced on social media, recently reached cucumber level. It perhaps should be said that in his chat with Aubrey de Grey at Longevity Summit Dublin he came across as warm, intelligent and crucially, given what he does with his life, willing to laugh at himself.

“Some people say that all publicity is good publicity and [Johnson] bringing attention to the fact that ageing is a malleable thing could be seen as a positive,” says Steele. “But my concern is… here’s this incredibly rich guy spending enormous amounts of money to do these various anti-ageing interventions… It’s just not accessible [to normal people], not just in terms of money but also time for people with jobs and kids… It’s an easy story to write, that [longevity] is a kooky thing for billionaire tech tycoons, but this field is about much more than that.”

Johnson appears in Dublin over video link – a long-haul flight would ravage his sleep performance, which according to Blueprint is in the top percentile for people of his age. He is revered by some longevists for taking to the front line in humanity’s battle against mortality. But when it comes to self-experimentation, one woman in the audience has already taken things much further.

On a Monday morning in September 2015, Liz Parrish left her home near Seattle and flew to Colombia, where she became the first person in the world to receive two experimental gene therapies aimed at reversing ageing. One of the treatments, telomerase gene therapy, is aimed at increasing the length of telomeres – the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes which shorten when our cells divide and which have been linked to disease and ageing. In tests on mice it had seemingly reversed aspects of ageing, but humans are not rodents and her unapproved treatment was very risky.

A month after returning home Parrish announced on a Reddit futurology forum that she was ‘Patient Zero’ – she was suffering from the disease of ageing and was putting her body on the line for “the sick children and the sick old people”. The following year her startup BioViva published extraordinary results – by extending Parrish’s telomeres by nine percent, the procedure had reversed her biological age by the equivalent of 20 years. The fact that it was a single-person experiment with no accompanying study hardly dampened the excitement. Had someone with no medical background just gone and found the cure for ageing?

Parrish’s unorthodox path to anti-ageing pioneer began in 2013, when her son was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes. She tells me that while in hospital with him she saw terminally ill children and thought, “Why do we let people die instead of letting them try new and experimental medicine?” That year she went to a SENS conference organised by Aubrey de Grey and learned more about the two experimental gene therapy treatments she would later take in Bogotá. “One of them had never been used in a human but it had extended the healthspan and lifespan of mice in various studies,” she says. Wasn’t she worried about the risk? “My son is sick every day, and there’s no walking away from that… You can give them insulin and bake cookies… or you can try to solve it.” Her answer is punctuated by lengthy pauses; she seems to be struggling to hold back tears. “Right now 41 million people are dying every year of ageing-associated diseases. If you’ve learned about something that could change that, wouldn’t you do it too?”

Delaying life-saving technologies for patients may cause millions of deaths”

Parrish’s Dublin talk, ‘Patient Advocacy and the Right to Try’, is permeated with the same sense of frustration and desperation that impelled her to go to a Colombian clinic for an unregulated gene therapy session. Getting a treatment approved by US regulatory body the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is slow and extremely expensive, she says. Part of the problem is that the FDA and other state regulators consider ageing to be a natural process rather than a disease, meaning that researchers developing drugs have to work within the existing framework and target a specific condition related to ageing rather than ageing as a whole.

Moreover, according to Parrish, regulators are too risk-averse when it comes to experimental treatments. This precautionary approach, she believes, is unforgivable. In Dublin, with a quote by Dr Martin Luther King Jr on the screen behind her, Parrish says that if it weren’t for overzealous regulators, those 41 million people each year could be kept alive. “Literally it’s on a par with murder,” she tells me. “If you delay life-saving technologies to patients who need them by just two years, you may be responsible for the death of 82 million people.”

Parrish is an advocate of medical tourism, which she believes creates new possibilities for getting human data on experimental anti-ageing treatments. And she’s not the only speaker in Dublin searching for innovative ways to get new treatments to clinical trials. Max Unfried of longevity funding group VitaDAO is part of a group of people seriously thinking about starting a new country.

Unfried tells me about a plan for ‘network states’ – “a kind of sequel to nation states” – to be formed by online communities which crowdfund the purchase of plots of land around the world, and eventually gain diplomatic recognition. These new states would have a regulatory blank slate, allowing for self-experimentation with unproven treatments and the rapid development of experimental drugs. Earlier this year the concept of a dedicated longevity state was discussed at Zuzalu, a pop-up city on the Adriatic coast of Montenegro, and in January 2024 a group will meet on the Honduran island of Roatán to plan a permanent longevity city-state, Vitalia, where, the organisers claim, “bureaucratic roadblocks” to clinical trials would be eliminated.

Longevity escape velocity might be the biggest bunch of BS I’ve ever read in the ageing field”

In Parrish’s mind, however, it’s not just regulators who are responsible for millions of preventable deaths. She says the media is generating fear and scepticism around longevity research, slowing progress still further. “The media is going after specific people [in the longevity space] like they’re politicians with an agenda,” she says. “And I think that’s because this is about to disrupt trillion-dollar industries.”

Parrish believes that she was the victim of an attempted character assassination herself. In April 2023 science journalist Frank Swain released Buying Time, a six-part Audible series about Parrish and her company. His investigation centred around BioViva’s partnership with Integrated Health Systems, a network of doctors outside the US which carries out anti-ageing gene therapy on humans and shares the data with Parrish’s firm. It also focused on BioViva’s relationship with the defunct non-profit Maximum Life Foundation, which helped fund unlicensed gene therapy treatments on elderly Americans in Mexico (the extent of BioViva’s involvement in the Tijuana trials is disputed). Through the discovery of various apparent inconsistencies and allegedly problematic business practices, Swain characterised BioViva as a sketchy startup whose work is both ethically and scientifically dodgy. Listeners to his podcast may well reach the conclusion that Parrish’s gung-ho determination to save lives has resulted in impaired judgement.

Swain’s podcast also questions the science behind BioViva’s announcement that its founder had reduced her biological age by 20 years. Parrish denies just about everything in Swain’s investigation, but on this subject, at least, she has performed something of a U-turn. “At first we really thought that lengthening telomeres might reverse all of biological ageing,” she tells me. “When we put out that first data that the telomeres had lengthened by [the equivalent of] 20 years we were hopeful that it meant that I was shifting back [in biological age]. Now what we’ve learned is that I haven’t cured all of ageing because there’s a lot more to it… It was disappointing and we have to get used to some setbacks.”

Understanding the concept of biological age – based on the health of our cells, tissues and organs rather than the calendar – is key to testing the efficacy of treatments that claim to intervene in the ageing process. While various epigenetic tests are on the market, all promising to tell you your biological age, the science is still up for debate and there isn’t a single widely accepted metric for measuring it. When I ask Parrish for her biological age she says she no longer knows. What she does know, she says, is that since Bogotá she’s gone from a woman in her mid-40s with lots of aches and pains to a woman in her early 50s who feels fantastic.

Her new project is called Better Health Medicine, which she says is aimed at creating a “pre-regulatory route” for getting “potentially life-saving experimental treatments to patients suffering from ageing-associated non-communicable diseases”. She insists that patients are intelligent enough to understand the risks involved and that we don’t need excessive regulation to prevent bad actors from peddling unproven treatments because people are essentially good. When I mention the words ‘snake oil’ she urges me not to put them in this article because they scare the public. “Fear is the mind-killer,” she says. “Fear can kill an entire industry.”

One of the pitfalls of being an immortalist is that your death will be widely viewed as ironic. But the radical life-extensionists may yet have the last laugh, even if there’s hardly anyone else around to hear it. A growing number of people in the longevity space are signing up for an insurance policy and having their bodies cryogenically preserved after their death.

Emil Kendziorra is the founder and president of Tomorrow.Bio, a human cryopreservation company with a (very) long-term storage facility in Switzerland, and chairman of the European Biostasis Foundation, a nonprofit focused on cryopreservation research.

A demonstration dummy in a cryopreservation ambulance. When people who have signed up with a cryopreservation company are pronounced dead, a response team moves in to start the process of lowering their body temperature to -196°C

A demonstration dummy in a cryopreservation ambulance. When people who have signed up with a cryopreservation company are pronounced dead, a response team moves in to start the process of lowering their body temperature to -196°C. Photo: Ricardo Rubio/Europa Press via Getty Images

Kendziorra runs me through his corpse-freezing services. You pay Tomorrow.Bio somewhere between €60,000 and €200,000 depending on your age and requirements (there’s a handy price calculator on their website; they accept monthly instalments), you give them informed consent to freeze your body, and then nothing much happens until you die. On that day their biostasis response team rushes to the hospital and at the moment you are pronounced legally dead they take your body to do the initial cool-down procedures. Covered in an ice-water mixture you receive a range of medications to protect your tissues and cells, as well as chest compressions, and oxygen delivered through a tube. When your body reaches the storage facility in the small Swiss town of Rafz it’s time for the deep freeze. At around zero degrees Celsius your blood is replaced with a type of medical-grade antifreeze which allows you to reach around -130°C without ice crystals forming. Then the thermometer continues to plunge to around -196°C, the temperature of liquid nitrogen, where you remain indefinitely, or until Kendziorra and his team – or perhaps more likely, their successors’ successors’ successors – wake you up.

I think everyone should be able to determine the length of their own lives”

And then what? “We see ourselves as an A-to-Z provider,” the German former cancer researcher replies. “It’s not OK to wake someone up far in the future and say, ‘Here’s the door, go figure it out’. But as long as basic human interactions stay the same – for example, if you go back 1,000 years and sit at a dinner table there will be something that looks like a glass and a plate and a fork – I think people will have a chance to become accustomed to the future. If, however, these basic interactions fundamentally change it will be very tough.” When I ask how his organisation might be able to help unfrozen clients adjust to their new surroundings, he points towards integration programmes used to help refugees in new countries.

Will revived clients remember their pre-cryopreservation past? “If they don’t remember it, this whole thing is for nothing,” Kendziorra says. “They would need to have their identity, their personality and so on, otherwise it’s not them. As far as we understand, all that stuff is being preserved.” Exactly how much do you understand? “Err, medium,” he says.

Kendziorra is reluctant to suggest a number when asked how many years it will take to figure all this stuff out and begin reanimating the corpses in his organisation’s freezer, which currently has a population “you can count on one hand.” “Technology is continually progressing but biology is very hard,” he says, acknowledging that there’s a decent chance that he won’t witness a grand reawakening in his own lifetime. “But I’m pretty sure we’re going to figure it out at some point. I think everyone should be able to determine the length of their own lives. That’s technologically not possible yet, and there are still a lot of questions about cryopreservation. But right now it’s the only option if every other medical intervention fails.”

If everything else continues to fail, that’s a problem for the cryogenically preserved. “It doesn’t make sense to wake someone up if they’re 85 and life expectancy is still at 87,” says Kendziorra. “They will soon die again. That’s why longevity and cryogenics go hand-in-hand. We need to wait until the longevity field has figured out how to allow people to live significantly longer before we can begin waking them up.”

“Did you notice that I wasn’t there?” asks S Jay Olshansky over Zoom when I tell him about Longevity Summit Dublin. Shortly afterwards it becomes clear why one of America’s foremost experts on human longevity wasn’t in the Irish capital. “Longevity escape velocity might just be the biggest bunch of BS I’ve ever read in the ageing field,” he says. I tell him about Aubrey de Grey’s claim that there’s a 50 percent chance we’ll end ageing by 2036. “It’s made up out of thin air,” he replies. “It’s nutty. It’s just nonsense.”

If de Grey represents the futurist wing of gerontology, Olshansky belongs firmly in the sceptic camp. A professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois, he’s spent much of his career arguing that concepts such as the ‘Methuselarity’ are pure fantasy. Twenty years ago he was running the Silver Fleece Awards to honour “the most egregious examples of spurious anti-ageing medicine” (the winners didn’t turn up to collect their prizes, bottles of vegetable oil labelled ‘snake oil’).

“They [the organisers of the Dublin conference] probably don’t want to hear somebody come and say, ‘Yeah, sorry, but that can’t happen,’” Olshansky says. “So, no, I don’t get invited to the radical life-extension meetings. I do, however, get invited to the real science meetings.” What I witnessed in Dublin was a classic case of groupthink, he says. “People who all believe in the same thing exclusively hearing views they already agree with.”

Jeanne Calment, the oldest person ever to have lived, celebrates her 117th birthday. When Calment died in 1997 she was 122 years and 164 days old. Photo: Jean-Pierre Fizet/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

So why can’t humans live to, say, 150? “The world record for running a mile is three minutes and 43 seconds,” Olshansky replies. “Can a human run a mile in one minute?” It seems extremely unlikely, I say. “That’s very positive of you!” he says. “That’s a non-zero probability. I would say it’s zero. And that’s because in this particular body design that evolved 200,000 years ago we are incapable of running as fast as a cheetah. Muscles and tendons and nerves and bones make it mechanically impossible. It’s the same thing with longevity. There is no brick wall [an upper threshold humans can’t live beyond] and no genes preclude us from living to 150. But it’s not going to happen in these bodies… Longevity limits evolved under the indirect force of natural selection – we have fixed genetic programmes for growth, development, reproduction and body design, and these all inadvertently influence how long we’re capable of living.”

I remind him that life expectancy has increased on average by three months every year since 1850. Won’t this trend continue well into the future? “Of course not,” he replies. “The vast majority of all that increase in longevity was the result of saving children from dying from infectious diseases… Infant, child and maternal mortality was very high. We won that battle and gained 30 years in life expectancy.” He expects the rise in life expectancy to decelerate. Even if diseases such as cancer and heart disease are cured, he says, the gains will be relatively modest.

Olshansky, who has said that he considers ageing as “no more a disease than puberty or menopause”, is nevertheless excited about some of the research taking place in ageing science. But he sees technological interventions as a path to longer healthspans and not significantly longer lifespans. He tells me that he answered all of my questions about the human lifespan in a paper published in Science journal in 1990. But that was before the internet, I say. With 33 years of technological breakthroughs, including giant leaps in genomics and AI, surely we’re at least a tiny step closer to curing death?

“Not in these bodies!” he says with a laugh. “Unless you’re talking about something out of a sci-fi movie like downloading our consciousness into a machine – at which point we’re no longer human – it’s not going to happen.” I share Olshansky’s criticism of longevity escape velocity with the man who coined the term. “Jay has been saying this sort of thing for a quarter of a century and it’s just beyond embarrassing,” replies Aubrey de Grey over email. “He hides behind failing to define what he means by the word ‘ageing’ and thus defining it circularly, effectively as ‘the thing we by definition can’t fix with medicine’. While there’s nothing wrong with his mathematics, he bases it on completely unjustified assumptions about the future of biomedical R&D, a field of which he is blissfully ignorant but refuses to admit that he is. If he were to condescend to come to remotely relevant conferences, rather than just ones organised and attended by people who have the same blinkers, he’d learn something – but, well, as Upton Sinclair said, it’s hard to make a man understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it. He’s a very nice guy though.”

However, it doesn’t sound as though anything will change Olshansky’s mind on the likelihood of curing ageing. “I’m not saying it’s unlikely to happen. I’m saying it cannot happen,” he says. “It’s hard to explain that to people at meetings like the one you attended in Dublin where they’re all drinking the Kool-Aid.”

The creation of the ultimate overtime is a costly business, but over the past decade some extraordinarily wealthy individuals have pledged vast amounts of money to solving the problem of ageing. And it comes as no surprise that Silicon Valley, home to disruptors and moonshotters with more money they could spend in a lifetime – that is, unless they radically extend that lifetime – is leading the anti-ageing charge.

In 2013 Google launched a new medical company, Calico, with $1.5 billion in the coffers to invest in the development of life-extending technologies. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is rumoured to have spent a small but significant fraction of his $160 billion net worth on funding Altos Labs, whose anti-ageing research will focus on cellular rejuvenation programming. Earlier this year Sam Altman, then-CEO of ChatGPT-maker OpenAI, invested $180 million in Retro Biosciences, a San Francisco startup using cellular reprogramming and plasma-inspired therapeutics to “add ten healthy years to the human lifespan”. Meanwhile, billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel has donated millions to longevity organisations including the Methuselah Foundation, a nonprofit co-founded by Aubrey de Grey and futurist David Gobel in 2001, which aims to “make 90 the new 50 by 2030”. Unlike de Grey, few of these organisations publicly talk about living to 1,000, which might put investors off. The emphasis, in most cases, is on substantially increasing healthspan – and on the so-called ‘longevity dividend’, the benefits to economies if people live longer healthy lives, still paying income tax as supercentenarians and freeing up hospital beds.

Dying old is still dying. And to some of the conference-goers in Dublin that is simply unacceptable’’

While Britain’s NHS and other healthcare systems feeling the strain could do with some major breakthroughs in human healthspan, national governments seem less inclined to splash out on speculative treatments. There is one exception, however. In 2021 the royal family of Saudi Arabia launched the Hevolution Foundation, which has a budget of $1 billion a year to help humans lead “longer, healthier lives’’.

Gerson Sobel, 93, swims in the Freeport Recreation Center, New York. The Peter Thiel-backed Methuselah Foundation aims to “make 90 the new 50 by 2030”

Gerson Sobel, 93, swims in the Freeport Recreation Center, New York. The Peter Thiel-backed Methuselah Foundation aims to “make 90 the new 50 by 2030”. Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images

There’s a lot of excitement right now over a wide range of ageing research. There’s the development of senolytic drugs, which remove aged senescent cells and which extended the lifespan of mice by 36 percent in lab tests. Andrew Steele believes that such drugs could be rolled out to humans in 10 to 20 years and could tackle many facets of the ageing process. There will certainly be advances in gene therapy treatments, which already take place for patients with severe single-gene problems, but the technology isn’t yet ready to do this safely on a much more ambitious scale. There has also long been excitement about the possibility of metformin, a cheap, safe drug usually prescribed for diabetes, having the potential to slow the ageing process. A large-scale metformin trial is slated to begin soon. Meanwhile, BioViva is trying to raise money to carry out a gene therapy study on ten patients with dementia in Mexico. There is currently no cure for the illness, but Liz Parrish is confident that she may have found one.

Steele, who doesn’t strike me as a Kool-Aid drinker, is confident that major breakthroughs are not that far away. He thinks that if someone of my age, their mid-forties, looks after themselves – sleeps well, eats well, exercises, doesn’t smoke etc – they should live long enough to see the first major breakthrough, which will extend our life by enough years to see the next major breakthrough – and bit by bit, breakthrough by breakthrough, we’ll get to live to a very ripe old age indeed.

Dying old, however, is still dying. And to some of the conference-goers in Dublin that is simply unacceptable. One attendee wore a T-shirt bearing the motto of Bryan Johnson – and the unofficial rallying cry of the longevity space: ‘DON’T DIE’.

The T-shirt wearer, Johnson, de Grey and the other conference-goers are hardly the first to embark upon a quest for immortality. The Epic of Gilgamesh, probably the oldest story ever told, which was etched on clay tablets dating back millennia, is about a king’s quest to conquer death. This desire to escape the grim reaper was shared by the ancient Egyptians, who mummified their dead; by Pope Innocent VIII, who drank the blood of ten-year-old boys on his deathbed; and by China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, whose lifelong search for an elixir of life ended prematurely thanks to mercury poisoning, apparently sustained during his search for a magic potion.

“People have been [promising immortality] for 2,000 years and look what happened to them,” observes longevity sceptic S Jay Olshansky dryly. “They all died.’’

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The UK's second-best magazine” Ian Hislop
Editor, Private Eye
Private Eye Magazine

Perhaps we could all get used to this Delayed idea...”
BBC Radio 4 - Today Programme