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On Bryan Johnson
An eccentric billionaire has made himself an easy-to-ridicule face of the growing anti-aging industry. But we should not use this as a reason to dismiss anti-aging as a whole.
Bryan Johnson, a billionaire on the quest to rewind the clock, is undeniably a bit kooky — and I am deeply disinterested in disavowing anyone of this notion. However, a lot of the discussions he has prompted demonstrate serious flaws in perspective about how anti-aging, including the desirability, feasibility, affordability, or even what partial success must necessarily look like. We should be prepared for — and excited about — the fact that the science is advancing in this field.
For as long as humanity, and even life itself, has existed, the inevitability of death has defined it. Even once we manage to defeat aging, death will still exist. Accidents and other non-age-related deaths will still happen, or, even if we somehow became truly immortal, we would have to contend with the heat death of the universe. Many say death gives life meaning, but what it gives life is desperation — a feeling that everything we have is extraordinarily fleeting and fragile.
This undermines people’s ability to properly consider long-term solutions to not just personal but also societal problems as well. The wiggle room to make issues “the next generation’s problems” deemphasizes the importance of addressing them now. Millennials and especially Zoomers have a lot more fear of climate change than prior generations — precisely because those generations expect to be dead when the worst of it hits. When it’s someone’s own future, it becomes so much more imperative to fight here and now.
Concerns about overpopulation from greatly enhanced lifespans over anything but the very long-term are overblown, given we could sustainably support billions more people with proper long-term solutions to our problems, like the phase-out of fossil fuels — not to mention birth rates in developed countries are in sharp decline. As it is, neo-Malthusian concerns of overpopulation already drives fascistic urges. Building a brighter future requires embracing the value of human life, not denying.
Of course, it is easy to dismiss a lot of anti-aging attempts as pie-in-the-sky fantasies that will not come to pass anyway. Tales of the mythical Fountain of Youth go back to the time of the Ancient Greeks and motivated much of the brutal colonial conquest of the conquistadors. “Anti-aging” serums and creams that, at best, slow down the process and mask the effects and, at worst, do nothing are a massive industry that constantly bombards us with advertising. Given all of this, skepticism about any emerging new claims is, certainly, quite warranted.
However, that does not change the fact that science is making massive inroads in tackling this issue. We have a developed a far better understanding of the aging process and how it can be measured beyond simple chronological age — and Johnson’s claims that he has shaved years off his effective age may very well be true. Much or all of this is likely simply from adopting a healthier lifestyle, not his experimental treatments, but the notion he has accomplished at least something there is more likely than many think.
Many point to the fact that he still looks middle-aged and have chocked up any changes in appearance to stuff like cosmetic treatments, which are likely possibilities. I, myself, have even joked publicly about how his before and after reminds me of a trans person going through HRT. Interestingly enough, he does take a form of estrogen in hopes that it can slow aspects of his aging. Regardless, it is fair to say he looks different but not necessarily younger.
However, aging is far more than skin deep. Most of what we can discern about someone’s age from a picture is from their their skin health. Over time, collagen and elastin production in the skin worsens, causing wrinkles and sagging skin. Much of this is not from the simple passage of time either but from accumulated UV damage, which is why regular sunscreen use is critical to maintaining youthful looks. However, we, as organisms, are a myriad of complex systems working together in tandem as one entity, not simply the skin that surrounds and protects them.
Consider the existence of a combination supplement called GlyNAC, a mixture of glycine and N-acetyl-cystine. Several studies over the past few years have demonstrated that, when taken in significant amounts, it can – as long as the supplement is taken — restore a number of important health factors in even elderly humans back to ranges associated with people in their twenties, including oxidative stress, mitochondrial function, and aspects of cognitive performance. These are core aspects of how aging robs us of our ability to enjoy and appreciate life as we age. However, GlyNAC does little to make you appear younger — and that’s okay. Anything that can keep aspects of our bodies working in a youthful state is a cause for celebration, even if not a whole-body solution.
One problem that does affect every system in the body, though, is telomeres — the caps on the end of chromosomes that progressively shorten as our cells divide. This does have an important purpose evolutionarily, given it is a stopgap against cancer. In recent years, we have developed techniques to re-lengthen them using an type of enzyme known as telomerase, but, given this evolutionary function, it is unsurprising that the mice on whom it was tested ultimately had a similar longevity due to increased incidence of cancer. This poses a tricky problem, though, with advancements in immunotherapy techniques or even a wonder drug like AOH1996 working out, we have a potent form of rejuvenation waiting in the wings. And, given cancer risk increases with age one way or another, it’s already a part of this tangled web of problems one way or another.
Beyond genes and their ability to replicate, there is also the factor of epigenetics — how genes are expressed. Though epigenetics is affected by numerous factors, it is how our bodies adapt gene expression to best fit our stages of life. What is useful for our cells as we grow is different from what is useful in our prime, which is also different from what is useful as we age. However, the result is, as we get older, our body puts in less effort to keep itself youthful. Researchers in recent years have demonstrated in how “reprogramming” our body’s epigenetics promotes youthful rejuvenation. Recently, this was used to restore vision in non-human primates. On a smaller scale, healthier lifestyle choices like regular exercise can help rewind the epigenetic clock at least somewhat – something that Bryan Johnson likely has experienced.
None of this is to say that the solutions discussed here are, in and of themselves, enough to keep someone functionally 25 forever. However, we are making tremendous inroads in that quest that should not be ignored. That progress is likely to accelerate, not just from increased funding and interest, but from the advent of AI. Though, in popular perception, AI largely seen as chatbots and image generators, it’s already being used with several promising potential new treatments already discovered.
Of course, it’s easy to cynically dismiss this all as stuff that will be entirely out of the price range of most people, only offered to a select few. However, not only would the political pressure to make such treatments widely available undoubtedly be immense once they are known to exist, it will also make plain business sense. Healthcare is already obscenely expensive, and people’s healthcare needs tend to get more extensive as we age. Those who are younger are far more likely to have negligible healthcare needs, so making someone younger is a way to minimize costs, unless the treatments are much more outrageously expensive than so much of what is a mainstay of medicine already.
Attempts to reverse aging will undoubtedly be a contentious topic for some time to come, especially when the face of it is rich people spending absurd amounts of money chasing unproven or even downright creepy treatments, like getting transfusions of young blood. However, we should both be excited for and doing everything within reason we can as a society to end aging once and for all — a goal that is in reach for many people alive now. And the swifter we solve this problem, the fewer people we will lose forever, when they could’ve graced us with their presence for so much longer.
The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant – an animated, allegorical short story about fighting back against aging and death.
We Must Abolish Death – writing of mine from 2021 about this subject.
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