Keeping father time at bay: but why would we want to live to 180? Illustration: Nate Kitch/Observer
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,” he says. “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 ineffective 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 (this is called senescence.) 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. Why play God?
In any case, it is likely that one single longevity strategy alone won’t help us much. Life extensionists enjoy a metaphor: humans are complicated machines, they say, like cars, but mushy. And what happens to a machine if you don’t look after it? It rusts. It splutters and spurts, until it reaches its inevitable conclusion. De Grey considers ageing a “multifaceted problem”. Humans incur many different types of damage. We don’t just rust. We scratch. We dent. Rubbish accumulates in our footwells and grime develops in our engines. We require multiple strategies of repair – constant fine-tuning. What’s the point in removing those senescent cells if that molecular junk continues to build up?
De Grey shares Strole’s belief that innovations are coming. But, unlike Strole, he considers current strategies almost pointless. He does not take hundreds of supplements. He does not pay for stem-cell transfusions. “I want to wait and see,” he says. At 56, he is content to sit tight for treatments that have become “progressively more effective… so I don’t have to use clunky, first-generation therapies that may have side-effects.”
This does not seem to bother Strole, nor others in the community. Time is running out! Bring on the treatments! At RAADfest, the Coalition’s annual conference – “the Woodstock of radical life extension” – visitors are invited to root through the latest in anti-ageing products, of which there are many. Try DHEA PRO-25, an “anti-ageing hormone”. Or NAD+PRO, advertised to “boost physical and mental energy”. Or Piracetam, from the family of “smart drugs”, or nootropics, which claim to enhance brain function. Strole named the area: “The marketplace of your future.” It is popular among RAADfest guests for the power of its promise: the opportunity to realise the hoped-for self. This is Wellness 2.0 – beyond the cosmetic. We have been anti-ageing our skin for years. Why not our insides, too?
Jim Mellon is reported to have described the longevity market as “a fountain of cash”, and has urged friends to invest. Business is already lucrative, but it is a market that appears to take little notice of efficacy. The majority of anti-ageing products remain unregulated – “patent pending”, in the vernacular – and more than a few appear utterly useless. Earlier this year, the US government released a statement condemning the anti-ageing fad of transfusing young blood into older bodies, a practice researchers have proved effective in mice but which, the FDA said, “should not be assumed to be safe or effective” in humans. (The treatments cost thousands of dollars, and led to concern that “Patients are being preyed upon by unscrupulous actors.”)
A decade ago, the American Association of Medicine publicly condemned the sale of “anti-ageing hormones,” an industry that was reported to be worth $50bn. “Despite the widespread promotion of hormones as anti-ageing agents by for-profit websites,” the association said, “the scientific evidence to support these claims is lacking.”
The oldest person to have lived, Jeanne Calment, reached 122, though she was perhaps not the greatest example of good health: she smoked until she was 117. The most successful life-extension methods we know of seem to be those we have known all along: eat well, sleep well, exercise, reduce stress and rely on modern medicine, which has prolonged average lifespans significantly over the past 160 years.
Strole does that and more. So far it’s working, he says. He is 6ft 4 and 13st – “the perfect weight” – with a slick of glossy grey hair. Perhaps his regimen is effective. Or, perhaps, like Calment, he has won a kind of genetic lottery, his healthy hair predisposed. It is difficult to say exactly, but, as of this moment, he will die. What happens if a breakthrough doesn’t arrive in his lifetime? “Well, then we’re in a little bit of hot water,” he says. But “it’s better to go for it than to not go for it. It’s better than just settling in. Don’t go quietly into the night.”