The End of Aging
Harvard’s genetics genius says we can live past 120 with supplements and lifestyle tweaks. Prepare to meet your future descendants.
by Chris Taylor
NOTE FOR 2019 READERS: This is the ninth in a series of open letters to the next century, now just 81 years away.
Dear 22nd Century,
In my letters up to this point, I’d kind of assumed I was writing to distant descendants. The babies of this decade will be the eightysomethings of the early 2100s; most of the denizens of the next century are generations unborn at press time. And nearly all of the rest of us are just ghosts. Long gone. Food for worms. Pushing up daisies or blowing in the wind. Ashes to ashes and all that, right?
Not so fast. It turns out humanity’s understanding of its aging process (and how to stop it) is advancing more rapidly than anyone expected. So rapidly, in fact, that some of the planet’s top biologists believe we can hold back the tide of aging, starting now, with today’s drugs and supplements and diets and exercises, just as soon as the medical establishment starts to see aging as a treatable disease. And that means it’s distinctly possible that one of the people I’m writing to in the dawn of the 22nd century is … myself.
In which case, hello future me! First question: Just how wild did things get at our 127th birthday party?
You may recall that in 2019, the idea of anyone living to that age sounded absurd; doing so in good health even more so. We were still stuck in the mindset that the Bible-mandated threescore-and-ten was what constituted a long life. If you made it to 70 or 80 with your health intact, well, that was about the best you could hope for. The decline would start to kick in then, hastened by one of the diseases that become more likely as we age: Alzheimer’s, heart disease, the big C. With genetic luck, a good diet and reasonably deep pockets, you could make it to 90. With really good fortune you could become one of those grinning centenarians on the local evening news — gone a hundred rounds in the ring with the ravages of time, but happy to still be around to eat cake and wear silly hats, even if you had to wheel yourself away from the table for your medication and afternoon nap afterwards.
Once you passed 110, you almost shaded into myth. In 2019 the world’s oldest living person, Kane Tanaka of Japan, is 116. The current world record was set by Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122 — and despite accusations from one gerontologist that Calment’s daughter had secretly taken her place during the chaos of World War II, 122 is still what scientists think of as the outer limit of human lifespan.
I have long been obsessed with seeing as much of the future as I possibly can. And yet the most optimistic wish I’d ever made for myself is that I might be lucky enough — and still in control of enough of my faculties — to see what the world has made of itself on my 100th birthday, in the far-off 2070s. Then in September 2019, a Harvard professor of genetics told me the following: “By the turn of the next century, a person who is 122 on the day of his or her death may be said to have lived a full, though not particularly long, life. We will look back with sadness on the time in our history in which it was not so.”
The professor, who is currently 50 but looks about 30, says he will hopefully live to see 2100 himself, at which point he will be 132. Instantly, that made me insanely competitive: If he can do it, at a more advanced age, so can I!
Sweet (One hundred and) Sixteen: Kane Tanaka, world’s oldest woman.
JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images
The professor’s name is David Sinclair, award-winning scientist and author of the new book Lifespan: Why We Age and Why We Don’t Have To. Sinclair, who recently became a minor celebrity via one of our culture’s latest avenues to fame, a two-hour conversation on the Joe Rogan Experience, is hardly our culture’s first longevity guru. I’m old enough to remember 2004, when inventor Ray Kurzweil began touting the idea that we could live forever if we just held on until the mid 2020s, by which time advanced biotech (and the Singularity, the term Kurzweil popularized for the moment AI becomes smarter than us) would take over, somehow.
Kurzweil soon became known in Silicon Valley for his giant ziploc baggies of vitamins and supplements, which he took several times a day in the hope of sticking around for the Singularity. He liked to quote longevity researcher Aubrey De Grey, who deals in a still hypothetical field called regenerative medicine, making this typically wild pronouncement: That by 2100, “life expectancy will be in the region of 5,000 years.”
Sinclair isn’t like that. A soft-spoken Australian (a rarity in itself) who chooses his words very carefully, he doesn’t claim we can live forever or see the year 7100 — just that large numbers of us should be able to push past the 122-year barrier, into uncharted territory, and that living until 150 is “not a silly thing to dream about.”
Unlike Kurzweil and de Grey, Sinclair has actually done the biological work. Most of his awards were for figuring out the aging mechanism in yeast, but he has also expanded the lives of laboratory mice. In one of his favorite experiments, a geriatric mouse ran nonstop for so long that it broke the lab treadmill, which wasn’t built to go more than 3 kilometers — an ultramarathon for rodents.
So when Sinclair says that “aging is easier to cure than cancer” — and that if we cure aging, we will minimize cancer’s harm — it’s worth sitting up and listening. He has the receipts. The first third of his book is a dense slog through the genetic science and his “information theory of aging,” which basically says that our cells break down because they make increasingly poor analog copies of themselves, like cassette tapes recording from cassette tapes. (22nd century kids, ask anyone over 110 what a cassette tape was.)
The DNA in each cell gets frayed. The cell walls get weak and begin to collapse. All our cells were once stem cells and are supposed to have settled down into one form — a heart cell, a skin cell, a brain cell. As we age, some start to climb back up the hill towards being a stem cell again, but they can’t get all the way there and simply jump the groove into being another kind of cell, like a needle skipping on a record player (ask anyone over 120 about record players).
That can cause tumors, collapsed capillaries, and other horrific cellular mistakes. “This loss of information is what leads each of us into a world of heart disease, cancer, pain, frailty and death,” says Sinclair. We can’t yet get our cells to make lossless digital copies of themselves. But we should be able to treat copying errors “like scratches on a CD,” Sinclair says, completing a trifecta of 20th century recording media analogies. (Anyone over 100 should be able to tell you what a CD was, and that scratches didn’t matter if you wiped it down.)
Old mice made new: Harvard genetics professor David Sinclair with his furry aging research assistant.
Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images
How do we do that? Well, what Sinclair confirmed with that treadmill mouse, and other experiments, was that enzymes called sirtuins can boost the strength of cells so much that they stop skipping the groove. And that you can activate sirtuins with a “helper molecule” called NAD. The senior citizen mouse had so much NAD in its system that its blood vessels were healthy and young, full of delicious oxygen, and it evidently felt like running forever.
There are many ways to make more NAD in the body. (This is probably grade school biology for you, but gramps just learned how it all works, so bear with me.) A lot of expensive drugs and supplements promise to boost it. But I was surprised to discover that the one Sinclair now favors, NMN — Nicotinamide mononucleotide, if you’re feeling formal — is just sitting there all over the internet, hiding among thousands of useless supplements in plain sight, like the Ark of the Covenant in the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
NMN, derived from the B vitamin niacin, is not the world’s cheapest supplement, but it’s hardly out of reach. I got a month’s supply for under $20. That’s at a dose of 250 mg a day; Sinclair himself takes a full gram of NMN every day, mixed into his yogurt, so to match him I’ll have to spend $20 a week. Still, that’s a decent investment if it saves me from having to shell out for massive doses of age-related disease-fighting drugs down the line. Besides, what price can you put on more life?
There’s been an explosion of research in the last few years showing that NMN (and its chemical cousin NR) may be a fountain of youth. But the stuff that sticks with me is the personal anecdotes. Sinclair started giving it to his father when his dad was 70, had just lost his wife, and was anticipating a slow decline; he’s now 80, going on dates and international flights and hiking such long distances that Sinclair can barely keep up. Sinclair also started giving NMN to his 10-year-old poodle crossbreed Charlie, who worked as a therapy dog in hospitals — but no more, because the invigorated pup now has too much energy to sit still for patients.
Even just taking NMN for a week, I started to feel the bracing effects — like a triple shot of espresso, but longer-lasting and less speedy. My wife has suffered from chronic fatigue for years, but NMN has started to pull her out of it. (This would be a good point to note that some people get a mild nausea reaction from NMN, but that neither NMN nor NR have that uncomfortable flushed face effect that raw niacin is known for.)
NMN isn’t the only supplement Sinclair takes or recommends. There’s also resveratrol, a compound found in red wine. We’ve known for some years that resveratrol reduces blood pressure; turns out it also boosts NAD. (For a long time we thought resveratrol was beneficial because it was an antioxidant, but biologists like Sinclair have started to shy away from the oxidizing theory of aging.) And then there’s Metformin, one of the most widely-used diabetes drugs, which has also been shown to have anti-aging properties.
Our general practitioners won’t currently prescribe it for aging, however, because they don’t see it as a disease, because a disease by definition is not something that affects the whole population. Sinclair believes they’ll catch on eventually, once the latest scientific literature filters down.
There are other brand new drugs in the works, many of which Sinclair can’t talk about, that he says “will make what we have today look like doctors using leeches.” But he does predict that within the next few decades, doctors will start injecting us with a benign designer virus that can literally reprogram our genome to be young again. You’d take a course of injections around age 30, then when you start to feel the effects of aging in your mid-40s, a course of antibiotics will wake the virus up.
That would turn on genes that would literally turn the clock back on your body — un-graying hair, removing wrinkles, even regenerating organs. “Like Benjamin Button, you would feel 35 again, then 30, then 25,” Sinclair writes. At that point, you take a second antibiotic to turn off the fountain of youth lest it reverse aging too far.
“Does that sound like science fiction?” asks Sinclair. Why yes it does, to us. But very likely not to you.
It’s not all drugs and futuristic therapies. There are two other ways to help fight aging that everyone in my era should be doing, and they know exactly what they are. You probably do too. Say it with me now: diet and exercise.
The exercise part is less onerous than most people think. Just half an hour of heartrate-raising activity on a regular basis has massively beneficial effects (maybe even more so than working out for an hour, possibly because you’re left with more energy to burn more calories). Sinclair himself only works out once or twice a week, going for a run and doing weight training with his son. He also exercises his body in the sense of exposing it to extreme temperatures — in his case, saunas, cold plunges, and T-shirt runs in the Boston snow — which have also been shown to increase lifespan in lab creatures.
Much of the anti-aging process, it seems, involves putting just the right amount of stress on the organism, so the organism bounces back tougher than ever.
It’s the diet part where most of my contemporaries will tap out. There are no two ways around it, I’m afraid: Study after study after study shows that restricting calories really leads to a longer life, not just one that feels longer. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you fast for several days a week, or for one week every few months, or only eat until you’re “80 percent full” like the Japanese, or meticulously stick to 1200 calories a day, or simply “forget” to eat one out of your three meals as Sinclair does. (The busy lifestyle of an international celebrity scientist helps him do that; he generally skips breakfast.)
However you do it, restricting calories flips a starvation switch that turns your cells into little fortresses, protecting against all kinds of DNA damage. So much so that chemotherapy patients are now advised to fast as much as they can, and drink only water if possible. If they shut down their intake, their regular cells are strong enough to resist the chemo, which passes over them and hits the cancer cells like the angel of death.
I’m not brave enough to try Prolon, a five-day, $250 precision starvation diet originally developed for chemo patients that is all the rage in longevity-obsessed Silicon Valley this year. (Sample day: olives, herbal tea, a tiny nut bar, a packet of kale crackers.) But it just so happened that when I talked to Sinclair, my wife had insisted that we rein in our eating habits with one of our periodic Whole30 diets (a month where you only eat protein, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, but can have as much as you like). Since the stuff I was eating was already of high nutritional value — and didn’t make me as hungry as my regular carb-rich diet — it was easier to eat less of it.
After I flipped the same mental switch as Sinclair — “treat hunger as a natural part of life,” he advises — it wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared. The hangry version of me failed to materialize, and the extra pounds I’d been carrying around my waist began to burn themselves off. I didn’t impose any more rules for my appetites to rebel against; I merely chose to consume smaller portions and was surprised at how little I really needed.
This put me in mind of the most concise diet advice I ever heard, offered on an episode of Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! by the magicians’ piano player, who had recently shed 90 pounds: “Just stop fucking eating so much.” (His boss Penn Jillette later lost even more weight in similar fashion, but added the step of resetting his taste buds with a brief potato-only diet — again, I could never do that, but it may be the kind of thing that works for chronic big-eaters.)
By your more enlightened era, I expect, some form of highly-nutritional calorie restriction will be baked deep in society. Fast food drones will deliver salads in portions that look tiny to our eyes, their ingredients tailored to your individual genome. You will look back on our time of gluttony and shudder, and not just because we ingested so many cows in the pre-Impossible era. The bombardment of billboards and TV ads with overstuffed pizzas and multi-layered burgers and giant sodas and ridiculous desserts will start to look like what they actually are: propaganda bordering on torture.
Squad goals, 2100 edition.
Once we’ve conquered our diets, instituted a regimen of exercise and saunas and cold plunges, doused ourselves in NMN and resveratrol and Metformin and benign viruses, quit smoking and cut down our drinking and remembered to wear our seatbelts, there’s one main obstacle remaining in the way of an extra-long and healthy life: our guilt.
Whether it’s hard-wired or a result of societal expectations, we tend to feel that old farts should not outstay their welcome. Leave some room for future generations, we grumble under our breath, out of earshot of elderly relatives. You’re already taking up too much of the housing stock, making it near-impossible for millennials to buy homes. You want to bankrupt Social Security and Medicare too?
Just last month, Ezekiel Emanuel, the chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s department of medical ethics (and a chief architect of Obamacare) confirmed that he stood by his controversial 2014 essay: “Why I hope to die at 75.” Despite the onslaught of anti-aging research, Emmannuel (now 62) said his main arguments still held water: That people in their 80s who were still vigorous were not doing “meaningful work;” that authors above 75 were not producing “brand-new books” but simply re-ploughing old furrows.
Let’s leave aside the fact that’s a pretty weird metric to judge the worth of a life — sorry, grandma, time to go, you’re not doing meaningful work or writing new books! Emanuel’s argument ignores what biologists like Sinclair are telling us. The more we age in good health, the more useful we will be.
Sinclair, as you might expect, could not disagree with Emanuel more. First of all, he says, let’s assume everyone stopped dying of age-related causes tomorrow — and they won’t, even under the most extreme anti-aging regimen. But if they do, that’s only 100,000 extra people per day sticking around. (Around 150,000 people die every day, roughly two-thirds of them from age-related causes.)
Compare that to the world’s current growth rate. More than 350,000 babies arrive every 24 hours. Earth’s population is growing because of the size of the average family in the developing world, not because more people are living longer. The main way to bring it down is to educate more women and move more families into cities — where, by the way, we shouldn’t blame Baby Boomers for the lack of housing. We simply need to build more.
Total human population should level off at around 11 billion around the time your century dawns, whether or not the aged continue to die. And as for the threat of climate change — well, perhaps the older generation will start to pay more attention when they’re actually going to live with the effects themselves. Or when they have to look their great-great-grandchildren in the eyes and explain their inaction.
Secondly, a healthy longevity boom would actually take an enormous burden off the healthcare system. Reducing just one of the major killers like heart disease, even by 10 percent, could save trillions of dollars, money that can then be reinvested in medical research or just returned to patients in the form of lower costs. And that’s the whole point of treating aging as the ultimate disease, the one that effectively produces all the others. (For example, Sinclair writes, smoking makes lung cancer five times more likely, but just living from 20 to 70 increases your chances of getting the disease a thousandfold, even if you’ve never sucked on a cancer stick.)
“Aging is by far the biggest risk factor in any disease, by an order of magnitude,” Sinclair says; having volunteered in nursing homes with his wife, he knows whereof he speaks. “Don’t delude yourself: Getting old and getting sick is not fun, for you or for your family. So I believe we have an obligation to preserve our health for as long as possible.”
OK, but if they’re not clogging up our hospitals, what are all these healthy oldsters going to do all day — just play around with their ever-longer retirements while younger generations work ever more jobs just to fund their Social Security checks? Sinclair believes that we are going to have to touch the third rail of Social Security at some point, probably by raising the age at which it kicks in; it wasn’t built to handle average lifespans of 80, let alone 120.
Instead of banking checks, he thinks we should put all that elder wisdom, all that institutional memory in those healthy brains, back to work. He proposes a series of “skillbaticals” instead of retirement; take a few years off once a decade, travel, chill out, learn some new skills, come back to the workforce refreshed and ready. And if there aren’t enough jobs, there’s always room for more scientists and researchers. Sinclair’s own Harvard lab is growing fast and could grow faster. It might take a decade to reeducate yourself to be useful in the sciences. But what’s a decade when we have dozens of them?
In 2019, such reeducation would throw a senior into deep debt with student loans (in the U.S., at least; other countries are more enlightened about the importance of investing in low-cost college education). But with trillions of dollars freed up in healthcare by everyone living healthier for longer, hopefully more states will do the right thing, follow New Mexico’s example, and make college free for all. Longer life and lifelong education need to go hand in hand.
So whatever you’ve done with your extra decades, future me, I hope you’ve been a productive member of a growing and warming world. I hope you’ve trained for three or four different careers, and written dozens of brand-new books in your 80s and beyond, just to stick it to Ezekiel Emanuel. And I hope our 127th birthday party in November 2100 was a blow-out to end all blow-outs, with as many of our old friends and family who came along for the 22nd century ride as possible. Maybe we even permitted ourself one very small low-calorie slice of cake.
Yours in good health,
Top illustration by
Brittany Levine Beckman