My previous post about radical life extension presented an extreme picture of the future, where humans are able to live longer and longer as a result of melding with machines, eventually even becoming machines themselves. It’s a fascinating future to consider, but also gets one thinking: are Kurzweil’s visions of immortality even close to being feasible, given the current state and direction of today’s technological advancements? When it comes, realistically, to life extension technologies, where do we really stand today?
There’s perhaps no group of people to better answer this question than the people of Methuselah Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by David Gobel, which supports Aubrey De Grey’s SENS research and is dedicated to enabling humans “to live longer, better and wiser, by defeating age-related disease and suffering.” I had the privilege of speaking to Roger Holzberg, the Chief Marketing Officer and Creative Director of Methuselah Foundation, about the core philosophies of the foundation and the promising research they are involved with. I asked Mr. Holzberg, what are the areas of life extension available now, and in our short-term future? What fundamentally drives the foundation towards seeking these life extension solutions?
“The goal is really to end the extraordinary suffering at the end of the life, the suffering that is global and pretty much accepted in ours and most cultures,” Holzberg said. “We really accept that that last 20 years of life will be filled with illness and deteriorating health. But with a better approach to solving the diseases of aging, a lot of that human suffering can be avoided.”
“Aging is still a given,” he added, “but the diseases of aging don’t have to be inevitable.”
Speaking with Mr. Holzberg really reframed some of my ideas from my Transhumanism post. It was easy to get caught up in the extreme predictions of Kurzweil, to think that pursuing life extension in such an extreme way in fact conflicted with many principle human values. But talking to Mr. Holzberg made me realize the very real, very present suffering we experience now as a result of people dying from diseases of aging – diseases that are preventable and manageable with the proper tools.
Indeed, treating aging as a “disease” and not a given in life is one of the principle philosophies of Methuselah Foundation. Towards this end, the foundation takes a very methodical, systematic approach to life extension, working to prevent and manage the diseases of aging such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, and to encourage research into new ways of prolonging life. Their strategy is 3 pronged: they have “Near Term” goals, including their newly launched My Bridge 4 Life, a wellness site (think Facebook for health) which helps offer strategies for increasing longevity by connecting people with life-threatening diseases and enabling them to share research, information, successful therapies, and support to better navigate their illness; The foundation’s “Mid Term” goals focus on encouraging research and innovation in the field of life extension by offering the Mprize, presented to scientists and researchers across the globe for the most promising life extension research; And finally, their “Long term” goals, which focus on investing in technologies of the future, including companies like Organovo, a regenerative medicine company that is working on “printing” new organs, and SENS Foundation, which seeks to use biological engineering techniques to restore and rejuvenate the human body before the effects of aging begin. Each of these approaches is pursued in tandem with the basic principle of living a long, healthy life, and making good lifestyle choices that ensure the best health possible.
Some of the most exciting advancements in longevity that have come out of research inspired by the MPrize include medications that mimic calorie restriction (a calorie restricted diet, according to research, is currently the only treatment that is proven to prevent all diseases of aging including cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes and neurodegeneration). Holzberg also forecasts, “Medications which target disease by addressing basic cellular processes, such as, say, aiding our bodies to continue to clear out bad cholesterol as we age, will be the next big wave in life extending tools”. And eventually, in the next 10-20 years, Holzberg predicts that the work of companies like Orgonovo, the bioengineering company who is working on “printing” new organs (see the video above), will be crucial in regenerative medicine. Interestingly, he hopes this type of organ growth will replace the more “barbaric” techniques of using machine-replacement organs:
“My dream is that 50 years from now we look at machine implantations as barbaric, but regrowing a healthy organ or healthy bodypart out of the DNA of the individual that needs it? That to me is much more in line with our philosophy…I love to imagine 50 years from now, if you had cancer in an organ in your body, you could give a healthy DNA sample, grow a new organ, and replace the one that’s diseased.”
“ It won’t be a mechanized replacement part,” he said, “It will be a replacement part from you!”
Getting a read on the real status of life extension possibilities was fascinating. There was little talk of cyborg technologies or artificial intelligence, those forces rampant in Kurzweil’s future. Interestingly enough, I found the focus on life extension to be surprisingly focused on lifestyle. In fact, much information on longevity has been gleaned from people across the world who live in what are known as “Blue Zones,” regions like Sardinia, Italy and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica where people commonly live active lives past the age of 100 years old. Interestingly, most of the people who live long lives now actually live incredibly non-technological lives.
What are their secrets? Blue Zone researchers have identified that these centenarians share a number of similar lifestyle attributes:
-The majority of food they eat is plant-based and unprocessed
-They engage in physical activity every day, like gardening and labor around the house
-They are socially active and integrated with their communities, and they value family and living communally
-They live lives that they feel are meaningful and purposeful, and they take time out each day to relax and be stress-free
(Here’s a thought: Does this sound like the way we live in highly technologically driven cultures?)
So, the take away message from my conversation with Mr. Holzberg was somewhat the opposite of Kurzweil’s technologically dependent future. Life-span extension today is certainly focused on technological break throughs, but even more so on promoting the basic lifestyle habits that promote good health such as diet, exercise, and living purposefully: the “Blue Zone” way of living. When it comes to pursuing technologies to living longer, “it’s a balance with lifestyle,” Holzberg says. Indeed, Methuselah Foundation is not interested in radical life extension, wholly dependent on blending with technology, but in using knowledge and technology to live better, longer.
“Methuselah Foundation is not about immortality,” said Holzberg. “We’re about living, longer healthier lives.”
To read more about Methuselah’s Foundation research, visit their website.
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