My friend Robin Farmanfarmaian invited me to an event called Reimagining Humans last week. I could easily produce a list of humans I would like to reimagine as living in a galaxy far, far away or as ground squirrels; alas, that wasn’t the focus of this particular event.
Produced by Arc Fusion, which is dedicated to accelerating the fusion of health, IT and biomedicine, this event set out to be amazingly broad-based. The promotional material claimed that the event would cover everything from top experts and thinkers talking in conversation about genetics, the brain, longevity, and more to music from the past and future, a video depicting the molecular wonder of the inner body, and a powerful talk by a young doctor who is dying of cancer. So I had to go because where do you find that kind of programming? And the event actually delivered on all of that promise and more.
The talk that most intrigued me was one about Longevity. It was billed as “the science of radical life extension-what happens if it succeeds.” This was a newer take than usual on the topic of living a long life – rather than a focus on how to make your golden years less miserable, the focus was on how to make your golden years everlasting, or at least a lot longer than we usually assume them to be.
The panel featured two interesting, accomplished and outspoken scientists, David Sinclair, PhD, and Joon Yun, MD. Sinclair is a Professor in the Department of Genetics and co-Director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for the Biology of Aging at Harvard Medical School. He is best known for his work on understanding why we age and how to slow its effects and is especially famous for his work with Resveratrol, the quest to turn back time with wine (sounds like many book clubs I have known). Yun runs Palo Alto Investors, LLC and thus is investing in ideas that he believes will reverse the aging process. He is also the sponsor of The Palo Alto Longevity Prize, a $1M life science competition that challenges teams from all over the world to “hack the code” that regulates our health and life span.
Note that reversing the aging process is a far cry from ensuring that one’s twilight years are not miserable and undignified. These guys are straight-up trying to reverse or end the causes of aging, Interview with the Vampire style; they are not spending their time thinking the results or symptoms of aging, including what to do if we have fallen and we can’t get up.
David Ewing Duncan, Arc Fusions’ Curator and an award-winning journalist and author, moderated the panel on longevity and he started by reviewing the results of a survey that the audience had been asked to complete pre-conference. In the survey, respondents were asked whether they prefer to live to the ripe old age of 80, 120, 150 or forever. Apparently the most common answer was 120 years; “forever” was the second most common response, proving once and for all that everyone is a sandbagger. When asked why people would NOT want to live to 150 or longer, the answers included expected things like money challenges and pain/body frailty but also my favorite responses: “grumpy old men” (I assume the abundance of them is the non-starter) and sex (albeit it wasn’t clear whether this was the presence or absence or just the long term creative pressure of keeping it interesting for a century and a half).
There were some really interesting discussions from this panel. Sinclair emphatically stated that there would be a pill available to slow or reverse the effects of aging within 5 years. Yun talked about the pros and cons of senescence as a means of cleaning out the gene pool. In other words, letting people get old and die can have a cleansing effect, on the one hand; on the other hand, experience and longevity contribute a different kind of value. This reminds me about the ongoing debate about Congressional term limits and I couldn’t help but think about that great line from the movie Fried Green Tomatoes where Kathy Bates’ character tells some young women that they may be younger and faster but she is older and has more insurance.
Both talked about the importance of resilience, both biological and psychological. Sinclair said that DNA damage that causes aging is like a scratched DVD – scratches (damage) make it harder for the genes to read/use the data. If you could reverse epigenetic drift – take the scratches out of the DVD – you could lengthen life and he is working hard to achieve that. Yoon commented that the best use of science is helping the body recover homeostasis so we can put the health system out of business.
Sinclair talked about how in the olden days, when lifespan was less than 40, people worried about health-related things like dying from splinters or childbirth. Today we worry about dying from non-communicable diseases. He asked the audience to think about what we would be worrying about if people lived past 80. It’s an interesting question. Harkening back to the earlier-mentioned survey, some posited the answer might be boredom. But seriously, we are no longer chased by mastodons and it is reasonable to expect to recover from most bacterial infections at the moment, but what will it look like 50-75-100 years from now when our antibiotics no longer work and when the world is overcrowded to the point of a Who concert? Will we die from killing each other to get a little damn privacy? Interesting to contemplate.
And speaking of this, Yun laughingly talked about how longevity might change marriage, a concept that began when life span was around 22. “Til death do us part” was not so daunting of a proposition then, as he put it. Live to 150, he stated, and each of us might do a bit more due diligence (and rethink the tattoo). It was a funny line but also poignant in its own way. Perhaps evolution will select for those who run through spouses like women run through toilet paper.
As I listened to the panel, I thought the most interesting line was this from Yun, “Health isn’t feeling good, it’s feeling nothing.” He went on to explain that 12-year-olds don’t say they are feeling healthy or energetic; they just say nothing and feel nothing and, as far as I can tell anyway, just go on about their business looking for Pokemon. According to Yoon, it’s when you’re aging that you start to feel things and it’s the presence of feelings in the body that is indicative of the state of aging. As someone who is, at least according to these experts, about 1/3 of the way through my life, I can assure you that I feel things now when I walk upstairs or sit too long that I didn’t used to feel at all. There are sounds that accompany these feelings that didn’t used to come out of my mouth which sound like “Oy!” I long for those silent days of feeling nothing.
The last part of the panel focused on who would have access to the great advantages of anti-aging. Would these technologies help only the wealthy? Sinclair stated that we have to get realistic – new technology was always expensive at first, but ultimately becomes cheaper and widely available. It’s an interesting hypothesis though not necessarily accurate in my view. Unless you take a very, very long view. We could end up with a world with lots of old rich men and fewer young, less wealthy people, making everywhere look like a night at the Rosewood Bar on Sand Hill Road. I’m not sure I’m ready for that. 80 is looking better and better.
And imagine this: a generic (aka cheap) pill for anti-aging that is as readily available as Vitamin C. And now couple that with the pill that Sinclair also says is coming – one that reverses infertility in aging adults. He pointed out that scientists have already managed to reverse what he called “mouse-o-pause” in the lab and that this was coming to a middle aged woman near you. Lordy. First Janet Jackson is having a kid at 50, then the rest of us are expected to join in the baby shower brigade? I’m not so sure about this anti-aging thing. If I’m stuck pushing a stroller instead of a walker at 120, I may just change my survey response!
One last note on Reimagining Humans (the event). It promised the fusion of the arts with science and it did not disappoint. The last session of the day was a virtuoso cello performance by Michael Fitzpatrick. I’m not sure of the name of the piece he played, but it was downright mesmerizing. It was the first time that virtually the entire audience put down their iPhones and really listened. As I looked around the room I actually saw people with tears in their eyes, taking in the beauty of the music. If you don’t believe music is one of the healing arts, you are definitely wrong. Anyone knows that the moment you are singing in your car at the top of your lungs to a song you loved in high school is the exact moment at which you defy aging, turn back time and become 18 all over again.