Crouched in the trenches of the horror of old age, modern individuals no longer wish to recover anything from the natural ageing process that their ancestors practised with such serenity. On the contrary, the first signs of physical decline become the raw material for a wide range of efforts (from picturesque to sickly) to forge a youth that the mirror refuses to restore.
While a 45-year-old person optimistically believes they are only halfway through life, at the same age, millionaire Dave Asprey is confident that he will live four times as long, and has already lavishly spent the first million euros on procedures to help him live to 180.
Asprey considers himself the first professional biohacker, which means, according to his own definition, that he acts on the environment in order to have “full control over his own biology,” with biohacking being no more and no less than “the art and science of becoming superhuman.”
The businessman is not averse to any experiment that might bring him closer to his goal—he injects himself with stem cells taken from his spinal cord every six months, bathes in infrared light, practises intermittent fasting, and spends time in cryotherapy chambers, where liquid nitrogen lowers his body temperature.
His diet is strictly controlled, although it doesn’t meet current medical standards. Asprey takes 100 supplements a day, gets 50-70% of his calories from fat, avoids gluten, thinks olive oil is a suspect food and avoids kale because he believes they have inflammatory effects due to their containing trace amounts of oxalic acid and legumes. His breakfast consists of his famous “bulletproof coffee,” which contains butter and coconut oil, a real panacea, according to the creator of this brand of coffee, which has become very popular despite the fact that experts say that this recipe has no curative virtues and is just a mass of fat and calories.
After experiencing the benefits of the “exceptionally effective” equipment in his $700,000 home-built gym, Asprey founded Upgrade Labs, the world’s first biohacking health and fitness centre, with gyms where the average membership is $1,000 a month.
Journalist Rachel Monroe writes that she herself has felt the power of Asprey’s persuasiveness when he talks about the healing and rejuvenating effects of the procedures he recommends. The enthusiasm with which he talks about the possibility of curing Alzheimer’s or doubling life span is exuberant and infectious.
Beyond his commercial goals as an entrepreneur, beating old age is a personal struggle for Asprey, who says his dream of living to at least 180 is “not science fiction at all. Someone’s got to do it, and I’m willing to die trying.”
Prolonging both youth and life is not just the feverish preoccupation of eccentric millionaires; the group of those hoping that medical technologies of the future will work real miracles is far more numerous and diverse, even if few pause to consider how fluid the outline of a world that could defeat an increasingly intimidating collective enemy would be.
Victor is 250 years old, but you wouldn’t give him more than 30, and that’s how he feels. He has an artificial heart, after his own gave out at the age of 65, and can now run a marathon with ease. He also had an artificial pancreas 100 years ago, which cured his Type 2 diabetes, and although he was nearly blind, he now has chips to replace his retinal cells as they wear out. His brain is better than ever because neural implants have expanded his memory so he can download all the information he needs.
His appearance radiates youth and vitality, which is only natural after science discovered an extraordinary anti-ageing treatment that uses nanoparticles capable of penetrating every cell in the body and correcting any errors or damage, including DNA faults.
However, it’s hard to tell if Victor is happy, despite the string of miracles that have come his way. He lost the love of his life, Elaine, his first wife, long ago. It is ironic that both he and Elaine, as students, were part of a movement that rejects all “artificial” biomedical intervention and campaigns for the individual’s right to live, age, and die naturally. They instilled the same values in their children.
It was only at the age of 65, knowing that his heart would fail before he met his second grandchild, that Victor finally accepted the idea of receiving an artificial heart. It was the first choice in a long series, as one by one his organs began to wear out and needed to be replaced. Eventually, Victor realised that he didn’t have to refuse the nanotechnology treatment that would erase all traces of ageing from his body. After all, there was no point in spending decades and centuries with a wrinkled face and a wrinkled body.
Separation from loved ones, however, was a tragedy that outweighed the benefits of eternal youth—some, like Elaine, refused aggressive rejuvenation technologies to the end, while others couldn’t afford them because of the high cost.
After his wife chose to die peacefully in her own bed, refusing the nanoparticle treatment that could have cured her cancer, Victor wondered if his artificial heart was really a blessing.
More than a century and a half after his decision, Victor still wonders whether the technology that reinvented him is a miracle or a Pandora’s box. He can’t even die from a serious accident—his non-human components will keep him alive for a long time. He could, of course, refuse any of the youth-preserving procedures, but it would take several decades for him to age again, when the bionic implants would deteriorate, eventually dying, probably after prolonged suffering.
Victor’s story sounds like something out of a science fiction book, but it’s actually in a Kirkus Award-nominated book in the non-fiction category, Beyond Human: How Cutting-Edge Science is Extending Our Life, by Eve Herold, former director of the American Psychiatric Association’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs and Public Education Manager for the Stem Cell Research Foundation, an organisation that promotes biomedical research.
In her book, Herold examines the “converging technologies” that have the potential to transform the length and quality of our lives, and unravels the stories of patients who have the courage to test aggressive treatments that may soon be on the market. In an uncertain future, Victor will no longer be a fictional character, with people managing to live for hundreds of years in a flourishing, eternal youth, believes Herold, who explores some of the ethical dilemmas that we’re just now figuring out, but which will become poignant in a world where senescence would remain just a dusty word in the dictionary.
An eternity paid for with many figures
It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to live in the shadow of a transhuman world, where science would manage, with sniper-like precision, to eliminate every unpleasant aspect of the human condition.
Similarly, it is as difficult to explain the extent to which we will remain human in a context where bodies and brains would become increasingly artificial, Herold points out, noting that we know nothing about the impact of the inequalities that treatments accessible only to the world’s financial elite would create.
This inequality will be the defining feature of the future, believes millionaire Serge Faguet, who at 32 has spent more than $200 million on biohacking in the hope of living a few million years. Those without access to upgrades will have no influence in the society of the future, says Faguet, who is convinced that a small number of superhumans will hold all the decision-making strings.
For Faguet, immortality has a secular connotation, and it is accessible only by merging with robots, an idea that frightens many but is popular in Silicon Valley millionaire circles.
Nothing is impossible if you have the financial resources to back it up, believes Sean Parker, the former CEO of Facebook, who claims that his billions will guarantee him the best possible healthcare and thus a place in the elite group that will never know death.
If money doesn’t open the gates to immortality, it certainly opens the gates to luxury healthcare, whether the individual needs it or not. Faguet avoids mainstream doctors, who are incapable of defusing all the hazards of the twilight years in a timely manner. He has surrounded himself with a team of doctors from various specialities, including neurologists from Harvard and Stanford, to whom he pays large sums of money to keep him at a great distance from the turmoil of old-age ailments. All that we can say with certainty, however, about this approach to slowing down ageing is that it involves, at the moment, ingesting a lot of medicines that are commonly prescribed to patients with conditions from which he does not currently suffer.
Minuet of three-digit ages
We don’t know exactly how much an infusion of (almost) eternal youth will cost, but we do know that the time when our youth will be extended is knocking on the door. That’s according to gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, co-founder of the California-based research foundation, Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS), who argues that many of those already born will know what it’s like to live for centuries.
De Grey fires the imagination of those who wish to be spared the prospect of old age and death by throwing bold statements into the public domain.
As soon as medicine succeeds in halting the physical deterioration caused by ageing, people will live to 1,000 years, says the gerontologist, who believes that the first person who will do so has already been born. Either way, a millennium is only the average age of future humans, de Grey points out, warning that the risk of death from causes unrelated to ageing will persist.
Speaking about how soon humans will begin to measure their lives in centuries, de Grey says it takes a decade to rejuvenate an old mouse, and within 15 years of that success, the first human rejuvenation therapies could be available. The 80-year-old generation is unlikely to benefit from these discoveries, but 60-year-olds could be progressively rejuvenated so that they are not 60 again until they are 90, a generous enough time frame for new life-extending therapies to be discovered.
Eventually, the first person to reach 1,000 will be only 10 years younger than the first person to reach 150, because we will have already discovered how to repair any damage to the body by rejuvenating the same individual indefinitely. This is, in de Grey’s words, the concept of “longevity escape velocity.”
In a society where the thought of old age opens up whole repositories of fears, theories such as those enunciated by the gerontologist are music to the ears of those who cling to the last remnants of their solar age. Nevertheless, even studies that have uncovered evidence suggesting the possibility of reversing old age are keeping a reserved tone on the subject.
Rejuvenation in the spotlight of medical research
A number of studies have brought good news for those who believe that old age must have an antidote, but there are no groundbreaking discoveries to guarantee that the road to eternal youth is already beginning to take shape.
Researchers Lisa Chakrabarti and Amelia Pollard have identified a protein that may be the cause of ageing, after observing that the brains of old mice, as well as those of young mice suffering from early degeneration, have high levels of carbonic anhydrase. While identifying the protein’s role in the ageing process is exciting, translating the test results to humans will require further investigation and, in any case, stopping ageing is a long way off as the reasons why cells degenerate are not yet fully understood by science.
A study published in the journal Aging Cell has found that a cocktail of drugs can reverse signs of ageing in subjects’ genomes while strengthening the immune system. Nine healthy male volunteers aged between 51 and 65 were given a mixture of two diabetes drugs and a growth hormone several times a week for a year. Subsequently, the researchers looked at the effect of this cocktail on the epigenetic “clock,” a biochemical test that shows how old or young a person is, and found that the volunteers had rejuvenated an average of 2.5 years.
This is an effect that has never been seen before, especially after an intervention of this kind, points out Sara Hägg, a specialist in molecular epidemiology at the Karolinska Institutet in Solna, Sweden.
At the same time, the researchers admit that the sample was very small, so it is not clear whether the results can be extended to other people. The study also had no control group and lacks information about any major lifestyle changes the people in the study may have made. It is also not known whether some type of “placebo effect” played a role in this case, explains Hägg, although she agrees that “the idea that biological age can be reversed is a highly interesting observation.”
Generally, researchers talk about stopping ageing with a reserved tone, even when there are promising results that make them optimistic about the process. Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, the coordinator of a study at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California which showed very good results after applying gene therapy to mice, said that although the effects were striking, “this approach will not lead to immortality.” What can be hoped for, however, is to slow down the internal genetic clock that dictates the body’s decline, with the researcher insisting that the focus should be not only on extending life span, “but more importantly, health span.”
Commenting on a study that used RNA therapy to produce telomerase, a protein that lengthens telomeres, a professor of medical genetics at the University of British Columbia expressed scepticism about theories that support the possibility of extending life indefinitely. Immortality “is not a dream entertained by many serious scientists,” says Peter Lansdorp, explaining that since our bodies are mortal by design, the only way to achieve a kind of immortality would be to upload our minds into robot bodies (however, we don’t know if consciousness will lend itself to being downloaded onto a hard drive, as the author of an article on transhumanism bitterly notes).
The mirrors in which we see our ageing
Even if science cannot guarantee that it will find a miracle cure to preserve our youth in the future, the hunger for a youthful face that does not betray our real age is a characteristic not only of the wealthy but also of ordinary people. It is proven by the fact that every day in Europe, tens of millions of people dutifully apply generous layers of creams which are only matched in price by their lack of effectiveness, notes journalist Anthony Browne.
Behind the obsession with youth lies a life crisis that rejuvenation procedures have no way of resolving, to the extent that depression can deepen, says psychologist Eileen Bradbury, who has even coined a term to describe the tendency to maintain a youthful appearance by procedures that erase the marks left by ageing: permayouth. The term denotes the inability to face ageing and the constant attempts to “restore the difference between how you look and how you feel you should look.”
Somehow, everything has come to revolve around age, so much so that we always need to know how old an athlete, an actress, or someone in our circle of acquaintances is, so that we can use this information to envy or pity them, writes journalist Laura Thompson. Today, we have broken the rigid but natural pattern of life that moved smoothly through all its stages, from youth to middle age and then to old age. We claim that age is just a number, so we can be anything—single at 35, parents after 40, grandparents in our mid-30s or sexagenarian students. But at the same time, we don’t free ourselves from the jolt of uncovering age behind every success, every wrinkle or firm cheek, Thompson notes, remarking that the obsession with youth has seeped into our bones.
The seductiveness of young faces exuding freshness (but also the reluctance with which physical decline is regarded) makes women anxious, and they find it hard “to feel they can age with dignity and grace,” said Galina Espinoza, editor-in-chief of Latina magazine, during a televised discussion.
The real solution for embracing old age is not to try to erase the marks that time has made on our flesh, but to change the way we think about the process, according to Bobbi Brown, founder of Bobbi Brown Cosmetics, who also participated in the discussion.
The host, Kathie Lee Gifford, noted that at every stage of life one needs to have an aspiration to ground oneself in the present instead of dwelling unhealthily on the past. It is true that ageing people suddenly become invisible in society, but there is an antidote even to this distressing reality: the realisation that “you don’t become invisible to the people who love you.”
Perhaps old age is the season when life’s authentic values shine most clearly beneath the tarnished umbrella of a complex age. And perhaps the smallness or, conversely, the grandeur of the things we lose ourselves in or that we overlook is more vividly revealed when life glides to the other end.
What is certain, however, is that we cannot endlessly vacillate between dreading the grimaces of withered youth and experiencing old age as an agony that is forcibly cheered with consoling slogans and platitudes.
Ageing is a process that can be daunting, as change rushes in like the images of a kaleidoscope shaken by a hasty hand. It’s as if you are wearing a Tikker watch on every inch of your skin, designed to tell you with split-second precision how much longer you have to live. Even if you can’t make out the numbers, you know that the slice of time you’ve been given here is getting thinner and thinner, and you may feel the hands of a clock from another age ticking relentlessly through the fickleness of the flesh, the weariness of the mind, and the exhaustion of the spirit.
It’s hard not to fall apart if there’s no solid foundation on which to stand in the whirlwind of change, but it’s healing to know that, in the season of loss, there is One who does not change, but remains the same, guaranteeing with the weight of the Word that He will carry us, support us, and save us through the greyness and beyond.
If there can be youth without age and life without death without the One who made us with His hands, then it must have the faint contours of Herold’s projections or the terrifying texture of the ironic backdrop of Saramago’s literature. I would rather choose ageing with grace, in the glow of an unearthly promise that offers far more than the solutions our provincial planet can provide.
Carmen Lăiu is an editor at Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.