Longevity: Who wants to live forever?

18 Jan 2023 | Updated on: 23 Jan 2023 |By Zoe Gunn

Silicon Valley is pouring billions into biotech firms promising to reverse the ageing process – but what actually is longevity, and is it possible to improve yours?

There are a few things that most Silicon Valley tech billionaires have in common. A supposedly ‘genius’ mind. A North Face gilet. More money than they could ever spend in lifetime. Which may explain why more and more of them are trying to, quite literally, live forever.

In some ways it makes sense. Once you’ve made your billions from something mundane like, say, an online bookstore or a society-destroying social media platform, the world is your oyster. Why not pour your endless resources into something far more sexy like the pursuit of eternal youth?

If that sounds far-fetched, sci-fi and, frankly, a little dystopian, be under no illusions that this is exactly what Dorsey, Bezos et al are trying to achieve under the guise of ‘longevity’. In a 2017 talk, former Facebook president Sean Parker told his audience, “Because I’m a billionaire, I’m going to have access to better healthcare. So, I’m going to be 160 and I’m going to be part of this class of immortal overlords.”

It may have been delivered with a smile but, given the expansion of the biotech space and the state of global wealth disparity, it’s hard to tell if he was actually joking.

What is longevity?

At its most basic, longevity is simply an umbrella term for anything relating to life expectancy. When it comes to human longevity, factors that affect life expectancy roughly fall into two camps. First, there are those we have no control over: genetics, gender and ethnicity. Then there are those which we can ostensibly control at an individual level: diet, exercise, hygiene, sleep patterns and lifestyle choices (although there is a strong argument that these things are also impacted by external factors, such as governmental policy, access to healthcare and education, and working conditions).

In a perhaps classic case of ‘they knew they could but never asked if they should’, it’s camp one that Silicon Valley is currently throwing money at in an attempt to bring under human control. In early 2022, Jeff Bezos revealed he was funnelling $3 billion into biotech start-up Altos Labs, whose research is focused on cellular rejuvenation programmes aimed at reversing disease, injury and disability. I’d love to tell you more but its one-page website doesn’t exactly aim for transparency.

Then there’s Google-funded Calico Labs. It describes its mission as to “develop interventions to allow people to live longer, healthier lives”. Which, on paper, sounds great. Until you remember that the other overarching dictate of Silicon Valley is ‘move fast and break things’. Hits a little differently when they’re talking about genetics, doesn’t it?

jeff bezos and lauren sanchez
Jeff Bezos and Lauren Sanchez at The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power World Premiere in 2022. Image: Shutterstock

Another prominent player in the field is PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel’s Unity Biotechnology which develops drugs to target cell senescence (the process by which aging cells stop reproducing and begin secreting a toxin called SASP, leading to age-related diseases, including cancer, muscle loss and neurodegeneration). It currently has six drugs in the development or trial phase and a stock price Wall Street reckons will increase by 342 per cent this year – clearly there are certain investors who think they’re on to something.

Which begs the question: will any of this research ever come to anything?

The Altos board is stuffed full of Nobel Laureates who, one presumes, aren’t risking their good names on a pipedream. But then there are set ups like Ambrosia, which was closed by the FDA in 2020 for lack of evidence to support its claims that ageing could be reversed with transfusions of ‘young blood’. Also prominent in this category is Aubrey De Grey, former chief science officer of the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) Reaserch Foundation, who once claimed in a TED talk that humans could live for a thousand years. In 2021 he was fired by SENS over sexual harassment claims. Give him a quick Google and you’ll see why he’s considered a bit of a modern-day Rasputin.

“The goal of ‘turning back the clock’ is unrealistic,” says Dr Raj Arora, GP, aesthetic doctor and skin expert at Foreo. “We age at a cellular level and these processes take place from the moment we’re born so we physically cannot reverse this cellular ageing. There are studies and research in place looking at how this can be achieved but I believe we are a way off that just yet.”

In short, these companies may achieve real, ground-breaking results that help further our understanding and treatment of diseases like Alzheimer’s and macular degeneration but, as for delaying the inevitable? Now aged 59, it may be too little, too late for Bezos.

Individual longevity

High-tech Silicon Valley start-ups are only half the conversation when it comes to longevity. Thiel and friends didn’t just wake up one day and decide to pour billions into trying to live forever; most have long been proponents of going to great lengths to maximise the benefit of their lifestyles for longevity.

Here they might actually be on to something. “Our individual behaviours, attitudes, choices and lifestyles have quite a significant impact on our longevity,” says Dr Arora. “Many studies have suggested that less than six hours of sleep per night could reduce lifespan. Similarly, high levels of stress and reduced physical activity have been shown to have a negative impact on longevity.”

peter thiel
Peter Thiel addressing the Republican National Nominating Convention in 2016. Image: Shutterstock

And while there are those that take these biohacking measures to the extreme – Square CEO Jack Dorsey claims to eat just five meals a week while archetypal tech bro Serge Faguet takes 40 assorted supplements, SSRIs and hormones with breakfast – there are easy, moderate changes most of us could make to help improve our longevity.

“Although we can’t delay the ageing process, we can improve our biological age (how old your cells and tissues are based on physiological evidence) by making smart lifestyle choices,” explains aesthetic doctor Deepa Panch. “For example, be mindful of your nutrition, get regular exercise and enough sleep.” Simply put, if you’ve ever taken a multivitamin, eaten a salad instead of a burger or attended a regular gym class, you’ve taken steps towards increasing your longevity.

Longevity vs healthspan

Every expert I spoke to for this piece was keen to make a distinction between longevity and healthspan. The latter is not just how long you live but the length of your life that is lived well and free from disease or, as Dr Arora puts it: “There should be a sense of quality and wellbeing whereby you are able to enjoy life, and ageing well is part of that.” When longevity is pursued at all costs, with little consideration for healthspan, things can get a little murky.

Take, for example, Faguet’s aforementioned cocktail of drugs. While some of these are natural supplements, such as garlic and turmeric, which are unlikely to do much harm, speaking to The Guardian, Faguet also admitted to taking some more serious substances. As well as injecting himself with somatropin for muscle growth, Faguet says he regularly takes prescription medications including antidepressants, lithium, oestrogen blockers (to boost testosterone levels) and diabetes drug metformin (for anti-ageing).

“The goal of ‘turning back the clock’ is unrealistic. We physically cannot reverse cellular ageing.”

Dr Raj Arora

While Faguet is being monitored by an army of private doctors, drugs such as metformin and rapamycin – an antibiotic used to prevent donor organ rejection and coat heart stents – are becoming increasingly popular among the wider longevity community. While there is very early evidence from animal trials that these drugs may have anti-ageing benefits, far more research is needed before conclusions can be drawn.

“To extrapolate the [current] results to human trials would be a huge feat,” says Dr Panch. “I personally don’t believe we should be taking medications unless they are indicated for use, as all medication can have side effects.”

Pancha points to SSRIs, another favourite among the longevity crowd thanks to their (shaky) reputation for delaying the onset of neurological diseases. SSRI side-effects include headaches, dizziness, sweating, insomnia and loss of libido – all of which can also be exacerbated by other ‘longevity-promoting’ practices such as regimented sleep routines and extreme fasting and exercise.

The great irony in this is that, in leading such restricted, fastidious lifestyles, many longevity obsessives may well be shutting themselves off from one of the few things proven to extend the human lifespan: social connection.

“Being connected socially – in both relationships and specifically friendships – is a protective health factor which has a strong impact on longevity,” says Holli Rubin, Head of Multi-Disciplinary Therapies at London clinic The Soke. “Men living with women live longer than single men, and women, with their wider social circles, live longer than men.”

In Rubin’s opinion, activities such as team sports or group hikes are among the most beneficial for long-term health. As well as fostering social connections, which in turn staves off loneliness and depression, they are brilliant for helping manage stress and increasing physical activity.

It is also worth considering that, even if you were to follow every didact of longevity and never touch a drop of alcohol, piece of chocolate or stay up late ever again, studies suggest that, on average, you might extend your life expectancy by four to ten years.

So, is it really worth it? I’ll let you be the judge of that.

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