Interview with Methuselah Foundation’s Roger Holzberg

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?

http://www.methuselahfoundation.org/

http://www.methuselahfoundation.org/

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.

5 Responses to “Interview with Methuselah Foundation’s Roger Holzberg”

  1. Alex G says:

    This post starts with a statement that, “the goal is really to end the extraordinary suffering at the end of life… the last 20 years of life will be filled with illness and deteriorating health.” This idea seems astonishing to me, for it was not until the technologically enabled prolonging of the human life that the end of life was marked by a gradual, inevitable decline. Life-extending technologies have dramatically lengthened the average human life, but they have also brought the illnesses and problems that come with extremely old age. The increased suffering, therefore, is a direct result of technology, and an increased extension of life might only make these problems worse. Furthermore, as old age has become a greater part of the norm, it has become expected to use these technologies in order to live a longer life. Fear of death has made it nearly impossible to avoid the lure of these technologies, so it is unlikely that many people will be able to refrain from their use.
    Additionally, as studies by Blue Zone researchers point out, most of the people who live to be over 100 years old have common lifestyle attributes, and none of these attributes are reliant on new technologies. Instead, they call for a rejection of high-paced, technological society in favor of simpler, more relaxing options. Therefore, even if life extension is determined to be beneficial, merely using technology may not be the best means of accomplishing this goal. This is not to say that technology is not helpful in extending life, for the extension of life in the last few hundred years is likely a direct result of advances in medicine and other scientific fields. Still, in order to prolong human life, it is advantageous to combine these advances with the lifestyle prescribed by the Blue Zone researchers.

  2. Dmeyers says:

    For me, the goal of the Methuselah Foundation was refreshing to hear, especially in contrast with the radical views of Kurzweil and Transhumanism. The clear distinction between Kurzweil and Holzberg seems to be grounded in the amount of ‘human’ that is left in each human after going through each respective procedure. Transhumanism promotes the idea of putting machine inside the human to promote longevity (and immortality!), while the Methuselah Foundation and Organovo are geared more towards inducing longevity through organic means – growing tissue. I feel like the progressive technological applications of Methuselah would be more widely accepted in culture simply because they are organic and the closest ‘thing’ to natural. To me, the differences between receiving an organ transplant and growing a new organ are all positive changes:
    -There is no donor. This means a person would not have to risk having surgery to donate, or feel the sentimental trauma of losing an organ; recipients would not need to feel guilty or indebted to those who donated; the deceased no longer need to be barbarically pillaged for their working parts. Because there is no donor, there is no (or at least not as long) waiting list where patients are placed on a twisted and ironic version of death row.
    A similarity can be drawn that almost makes organ growing seem like a natural process in one’s life. When I wake up in the morning I take vitamins to boost my immune system, help my organs perform more effectively, and generally feel better. The process of taking vitamins can be seen as an external activity to boost internal functions. How is growing an organ any different? It is using natural, organic materials to grow, or help the body grow, a new vital organ when the prior one has been damaged. It seems like the difference between vitamin-taking and organ-growing is only that organ-growing is a more holistic and efficient approach to longevity.
    When it is all boiled down, opponents of organ-growing probably have a large majority of their resent stemming from the disbelief that such a technological miracle is possible, and the realization that it is indeed possible makes it ‘evil’ or ‘unnatural’ or ‘anti-essential’ to humans. That techno-shock-induced dissatisfaction may be appropriate for Transhumanism (or maybe not) but it does not seem to hold with the Methuselah Foundation and their progressive thinking.

  3. Alec says:

    This stuff is all really cool.

    I’m not sure it is correct to say that “it was not until the technologically enabled prolonging of the human life that the end of life was marked by a gradual, inevitable decline.” It may be likely that when we were dieing at 40 that it may have been a bit more sudden, but the process was much less unpleasant, whatever it was. Although at 19 I can’t say I’ve experience it myself, I think you may be exaggerating the degree of suffering as well as the duration at which it occurs. I know a number of people in the older generations that *seem* to be just fine, and they keep busy, exercise, and eat well. You identify fear of death as a driver in the process, but that isn’t a characteristic of all societies, and it isn’t even completely true for everyone in the US.

    I see the main deal is that the Blue Zone type of living will never continue… if they have kids, it is unlikely that none of them will seek to expand their capabilities and begin developing… you guessed it, technologies. It’s how we naturally work. We are unable to do the same thing over and over and over again without imagining a better way. It weirds me out when technology is identified as the prime mover since it makes it into some sort of living being. The reality is that we–humans–are the living being. We want to make stuff better/fast/efficient-er and golly we’ll find a way. I think it all comes down to self-control and maintaining priorities (which still won’t suffice since we will think of better ways to do that…).

    One thing that must be dealt with once people start living longer is that fact that they are living longer… i.e. population explosion. No matter what the case, that will necessarily happen.

  4. Molly Quigley says:

    This article sparked my attention because it made me hopeful that one day we will not have to see our parents suffer terrible diseases such as Alzheimer’s. If these heart wrenching diseases are avoidable through lifestyle changes, I think we should all be aware of that information and technology, and embrace it. The quality of life of so many people would be improved, and these lifestyle improvements would last until their death. I like that the Methuselah Foundation emphasizes a long, healthy life instead of immortality, unlike Kurzweil’s vision that would ultimately destroy human life.

    The only thing that concerns me is over population. If people are living longer, this would cause a lack of resources. There is already so much hunger all over the world and I fear it would only increase. Those who are wealthy would have greater access to these limited resources and those were poor would have increasingly less access.

    I believe the principles of lifestyle that the Methuselah Foundation is attempting to push are in great accordance with the lifestyle changes that need to be made in America. Younger generations have such a high obesity level because they are addicted to their technology. Kids will sit and play video games, eat processed snacks, and then watch TV day after day, and ultimately they live a shorter, unhealthier life than those people in “Blue Zones.” I believe if people embrace the changes that the Methuselah Foundation are trying to push, America’s health problem will be improved. I think these changes will appeal to many Americans because of our present health situation.

  5. Justin_Thomsen says:

    As wonderful and as motivating as this article is, I can’t say I believe that those lifestyles are terribly possible in our modern technological society. Taking 24 hours on a Sunday to de-stress? Laughable. Eating a balanced diet rich in plants and low in meat? Extremely difficult. Finding time to exercise the suggested amount (30 minutes of moderate exercise 5-7 times per week)? Impractical, if not impossible for most people.

    These suggestions are excellent. In fact, they seem pretty much to be common sense solutions for living a healthier life. If you treat your body right, it will treat you right in return (in general, anyway). Nothing is guaranteed in this world, but high-fat, high-calorie, low-vitamin/mineral, low-exercise, high-stress, anti-social lifestyles that most Americans “enjoy” sure doesn’t sound like a recipe for success.The problem, of course, is how could we really make it easier for people to adopt these healthier lifestyles?

    I prefer this solution to longevity over the immortality projects. I, too, am averse to the goal of immortality. It is disrespectful to the nature of life (i.e., its mortality). We are not meant to be immortal. We are not gods. I would not want to live to see the day where humans do not pass from this world–not because I am some sadist who wants to see suffering, but precisely the opposite. How terrible would a world be in which nobody passed away? Our world is already overpopulated and on a devastatingly unsustainable course of growth. I suppose if we achieved immortality, then we could by authoritarian fiat ban procreation, but I would not will a world where we could take the joy of raising, caring for, and sharing a life with a family from people who desire it. Far from erasing humanity however, the goals of the Methuselah Foundation serve to reinforce the structures of human interpersonal existence. To not support that would be the real sadistic position. By the same token, I strongly approve of the idea of creating new organs from one’s own tissue to replace any failing ones they might have rather than replacing with machines and engaging in transhumanism. This is a worthy goal if only to eliminate the risk of rejection complications that all transplant surgeries currently entail.

    I agree that we need to make lifestyle changes in the modern world. We need less TV, more outdoor activities, more “family time,” less fast food, more whole grains, more fine arts, less work that consumes personal time, and, in general, a slower society. I firmly believe that those who race through daily life, as do the vast majority of Americans, only race through to their unhealthy demise. I remember the old fable of the Tortoise and the Hare: slow and steady wins the race. The reason why? Because slow and steady is the only one that reaches the finish line in healthy order.

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