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Mindful : June 2018
it more modestly to The Guardian, a way to “have a healthy life and then turn out the lights.” That describes the goal of some in the anti-ag- ing world. Health spanners want to discover genetic tweaks, medications, and other inter- ventions that will give people a healthier life and, in particular, a healthier late-in-life life—by postponing or eliminating disease, decrepitude, and dementia—followed by a quick and painless death. In 2016 the US National Academy of Med- icine launched a “Grand Challenge for Healthy Longevity,” which will award at least $25 million for breakthroughs in increasing health span. That, however, wouldn’t necessarily extend life span, or not more by than a few years. Even if we conquered all disease, cellular aging baked into our DNA and made inevitable by the laws of thermodynamics would eventu- ally “turn out the lights.” That’s where other anti-aging warriors come in. Immortalists like PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel talk about living forever. The credo of most immortalists, though, is better summed up by British researcher Aubrey de Grey, whose TED talk on conquer- ing biological aging has been viewed some 3.5 million times: The first humans who will live to 1,000, he arg ues, are alive right now. Dr. Joon Yun, who runs the Palo Alto Investors health- care hedge fund, has said, “Thermodynamically, there should be no reason we can’t defer entropy indefinitely. We can end aging forever.” He didn’t say “end death,” but eliminating aging and overturning entropy would probably get us at least to de Grey’s 1,000 -year-olds. Thanks to both health spanners and immor- talists, “We are seeing huge market demand for aging research,” funded primarily by private investors, according to neuroscientist Terrie Moffitt of Duke University, who contributed to the Nuffield Council’s report. The investment is driven, in part, by legit- imate advances in understanding the biolog y of aging. Although there is no consensus about its precise cellular or genetic causes, scientists have made significant strides in identifying key components of aging, such as the shortening of telomeres (stretches of DNA at the ends of chromosomes) and the activation or suppression of different genes. They are also identifying ways to target the drivers of aging. A clinical trial of metformin, a diabetes drug, is expected to start this year: The drug boosts the activity of an enzyme called AMPK, which not only lowers blood sugar (hence diabetes) but seems to also prevent diseases of aging. Other studies are examining the super-low calorie regimen called dietary restriction, which can extend healthy life span in a range of animals and slow biological aging in people. Here, the focus is on finding molecules that mimic the molecular effects of an 800-calo- rie-a -day regimen (which few of us can manage, even if eternal life beckoned). In a similar vein, the craze for resveratrol, a compound in red wine, peaked a decade ago once studies began showing that people who took resveratrol pills didn’t live longer or healthier. Nevertheless, research continues, buoyed by the fact that the compound affects the activity of aging-related enzymes called sirtuins. How much is it worth to some people to defeat aging? Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page spent a reported $1 billion to launch the bio- technolog y company Calico, whose mission is to slow or stop cellular aging and thus “enable people to lead longer and healthier lives.” Unity Biotechnolog y, which also seeks to thwart aging, has drawn investments of at least $116 million from Thiel and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Some people are so optimistic that sci- entists will eventually vanquish aging and pos- sibly death—although perhaps not soon enough for them personally— that 150 people have paid to preserve either their heads ($80,000) or their entire bodies ($200,000) in liquid nitrogen at the Scottsdale, Arizona, facility of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, including de Grey and the futurist Ray Kurzweil. The obsession of tech billionaires with defeating aging even One of the anti-aging schemes sprouting up in Silicon Valley har vests the blood of teenag- ers, extracts the plasma, and injects it into older clients. The Monterey, California, star t-up Ambrosia charges $8,000 for plasma trans- fusions, 1.5 liters at a time, over the course of two days. Founder Jesse Karmazin, MD, CRAZE OR CRAZY? | Young Blood is conducting trials on his patients and claims to have demonstrated improved sleep and reductions in proteins associated with cancer and Alzheimer’s disease—although mainstream scientists have criticized the trials for lacking a control group and drawing its cohor t only from those who can afford the steep fee. ACCORDING TO DR. JOON YUN, “THERMO- DYNAMICALLY, THERE SHOULD BE NO REASON WE CAN’T DEFER ENTROPY INDEFINITELY. WE CAN END AGING FOREVER.” brain science 34 mindful June 2018