Those portions of the modern longevity community interested in bringing an end to aging and extending healthy human life span indefinitely tend to be the older portions, people who have been a part of the broader movement for quite some time. Newcomers tend to be more moderate, aiming at lesser goals. Perhaps this is a result of the successful projects, such as the SENS Research Foundation and Methuselah Foundation, tending to moderate their rhetoric as they attract a broader and larger base of support. I think that this road to moderation might be a problem, and that there is thus a continued role for those who loudly declaim that the goal is to control aging absolutely, via new medical technology, and that the natural consequence of that control is healthy, active, youthful life that extends for centuries or more.
If the goals that our movement works towards are broadly watered down from radical life extension of centuries to just adding a few more years, then marginal projects that can do no more than add a few more years will come to dominate the field to the exclusion of everything else. We are already more or less in this situation, in that that the vast majority of funding goes towards discovery and development of small molecules that tinker with the operation of an aged metabolism to make it a little more resilient to the underlying causes of aging. If that is all that is done, then we’ll all age and die on basically the same schedule as our parents and grandparents. It will be a grand waste of opportunity, given that we have the knowledge and the means to do far better, such as by following the SENS agenda for rejuvenation biotechnologies based on repairing the root causes of aging.
This popular media article looks at a few of the people who do make no bones about aiming at radical life extension. It isn’t terrible, thankfully, though it doesn’t quite manage to escape the straitjacket of conformity, the author suggesting that it is somehow strange to want to live for a long time in good health, or strange to want to avoid a slow, crumbling, painful death. There is no present status quo so terrible that it will not have its defenders, and for whatever reason the status quo of aging and suffering and omnipresent death and loss are aggressively defended. But setting that aside, the article manages to capture the present state of development and the viewpoints of its subjects quite well, which is a change over past years of media attention.
In 2016, an American real-estate investor named James Strole established the Coalition for Radical Life Extension, a nonprofit based in Arizona which aims to galvanise mainstream support for science that might one day significantly prolong human life. Standards in modern medicine are allowing us to live longer now than ever before. But that is not Strole’s concern. What good are a few more measly years? He is interested in extending life not by days and weeks, but by decades and even centuries, to the degree that mortality becomes optional – an end to The End. He isn’t alone. Life extensionists have become a fervent and increasingly vocal bunch. Famously, the community includes venture capitalists and Silicon Valley billionaires, non-gerontologists all, and nearly all men, who consider death undesirable.
The current life-extensionist strategy is twofold. First, achieve a “wellness foundation,” Strole says. Second, stay alive until the coming gerontological breakthrough. All that is required is to “live long enough for the next innovation,” and presuming you do, “You can buy another 20 years.” Twenty years here, 20 years there, it all adds up, and suddenly you’re 300. This is a common view. Last year the British billionaire Jim Mellon, who has written a book on longevity, titled Juvenescence, said: “If you can stay alive for another 10 to 20 years, if you aren’t yet over 75 and if you remain in reasonable health for your age, you have an excellent chance of living to more than 110.” To most, 110 seems a modest target. Why not forever? “It’s not some big quantum leap,” Strole says, by way of explanation. He invokes the analogy of a ladder: “step by step by step” to unlimited life. In 2009 the American futurist Ray Kurzweil coined a similar metaphor, referring instead to “bridges to immortality“.
Aubrey de Grey, a serious scientist, considers life extension a health issue, which is perhaps the field’s most convincing argument. Gerontologists are not hoping to end death, he says. Instead, “We’re interested in people not getting sick when they get old.” No matter how much society rails against the concept of immortality, nobody really wants to suffer through Alzheimer’s, or suddenly fall foul of cardiovascular disease. Gerontology is the act of developing treatments for age-related diseases, de Grey argues – of reducing the causes of death, not death itself. “The benefits of living longer are not the point. The benefits are not having Alzheimer’s disease.” For de Grey, indefinite life is a by-product, not a goal.
Are we anywhere near to a breakthrough? So far, research has produced modest yields. Gerontologists speak prophetically of potential, but most warn a significant human development remains somewhere far off in the distance – almost in sight but not quite. Richard Hodes, the director of the National Institute of Aging, a US government agency, told me that, though research in animals has led to “dramatic increases in lifespan”, some of them multi-fold, “There has been far less quantitative effect as those models have moved towards mammalian species.” The biologist Laura Deming, who in 2011 established the Longevity Fund, a venture capital firm that supports “high-potential longevity companies”, told me that startups continue to successfully root out biological markers of ageing – inefficient cells, mitochondrial decline – but that, in humans, “We really don’t know right now what will work and what won’t.”
Much of gerontology focuses on identifying types of damage that accumulate with age and developing ways to halt or reverse that accumulation. It has been discovered, for example, that as we grow older, certain cells become senescent and harmful but nevertheless stick around, getting in the way like comatose guests at the end of a house party. Removing those cells have helped mice have longer, healthier lifespans. Similar forms of genetic engineering have been successful in other animal models. But to reach the mainstream, gerontologists must convince government agencies to support human adoption, a complicated and long-winded task, given the general view that death is a normal human process.