Column: Seeking the fountain of youth? Don’t drown in hype

Given the long list of major catastrophes in the world — melting polar ice, raging wars, the disappearance of early-bird specials, etc. — I’m not sure why so many people want to live forever. But they do, and the multibillion-dollar longevity industry is booming.

Supplements, skincare products, cosmetic surgery, books, diets, podcasts, workout routines — all of this is available to anyone who wants to halt or reverse the aging process, or at least try.

David Sinclair, a 54-year-old Harvard geneticist, told Fortune magazine he’s getting back to his 20-year-old brain. He’s on a plant-based diet with supplements designed to jump-start his longevity genes. He’s also managed to activate his bank account with a bestselling book called “Lifespan: Why We Age — And Why We Don’t Have To.”

California is about to be hit by an aging population wave, and Steve Lopez is riding it. His column focuses on the blessings and burdens of advancing age — and how some folks are challenging the stigma associated with older adults.

Tech entrepreneur and anti-aging guru Bryan Johnson of Los Angeles takes it a step further. He’s 46 in real time but is trying to get back to 18. He says death is optional, and it’s presumably less likely if you sign up for his $333-monthly line of supplemental products. Johnson downs 100 or so supplements daily and performs about two dozen exercises. He wears a T-shirt that says, “Don’t Die,” eats something he calls “nutty pudding” and sleeps with a penis monitor to count nighttime erections.

Such a routine would actually shorten my life, because after a week or so of that, I’d hurl myself in front of a bus.

Thankfully, not everyone is easily duped by claims of immortality. Charles Brenner, an acclaimed authority on metabolism and disease, first contacted me a year ago to say, “I’m very bothered by bulls— claims in longevity science.”

The City of Hope biochemist has used science to poke holes in one life-extension claim after another, including those of Sinclair and Johnson, and has become known as the longevity skeptic and the great debunker.

When we met for a cup of coffee one recent morning in Sierra Madre, he began the conversation with a reference to the Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote about dipping in magical waters that can keep you forever young. But there was no fountain of youth back then, Brenner noted, and the latest claims of its existence are sure to ultimately disappoint the long lines of lemmings.

“Partially, it’s media, and a worship of youth as opposed to a respect for aging and wisdom,” Brenner said. “We all want to retain our facilities and our ability to provide for others, so I think that’s normal and healthy. But there’s a lot of anxiety that is driving the obsession with anti-aging, and I do believe there have been some false promises and obfuscation from some figures at the interface of academia and investment.”

That’s not to say there are no pathways to healthier living, or that there is no promising research into detection, prevention and treatment of life-shortening diseases. Brenner discovered in his own research that a vitamin called nicotinamide riboside is useful “in promoting resiliency and repair in aging. “We’re doing randomized clinical trials to test its efficacy in a variety of age-related conditions” including Parkinson’s disease. “I don’t think it’s going to extend life span,” he said, “but I do think … it’s something that can help people maintain their resiliency.”

This brings up an important distinction — that medical breakthroughs and healthier lifestyles can help us lengthen our health span, if not our life span. We all have to eventually “leave the feast of life,” as Brenner puts it, but there’s hope that we can enjoy healthier and more active years while we’re still standing.

Psychology professor Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Longevity Center, said she doesn’t know of any evidence that we can live forever, or what kind of nightmare that might be.

“People are profiting mightily from what might be snake oil,” she said. “But the scientific community doesn’t know what the best measures are right now, and we don’t want people to stop looking for them.”

In Carstensen’s view, we have an astronomically expensive disease-care system rather than a healthcare system, and she wouldn’t bet a nickel on an overhaul by the federal government. So she’s holding out hope for legitimate private sector forays into early detection and intervention. As an example, she points out that preventing diabetes is a lot less expensive than treating it.

“Geroscience is often misrepresented as helping people live forever. It’s not. It’s about health span, and altering the processes that put us at risk for virtually all diseases,” Carstensen said.

Just before I met with Brenner, a PR firm offered me an interview with Irina Conboy, a UC Berkeley professor who has co-founded a company called Generation Lab. I was initially skeptical because the pitch said Conboy was responsible for a number of “research breakthroughs… on the discovery that aging is malleable and can be rapidly reversed, through rejuvenating blood circulation.”

Another fountain of youth proposition?

But the same pitch said Generation Lab’s process involves peer-reviewed science, and employs a series of cheek swab tests “to measure clinically relevant biological ‘alarm signals’ that report biological age and risk of disease.” Clients would get an assessment of the condition of cardiac, respiratory, urinary and other body systems, and through a pairing with a physician, interventions could be prescribed to “address conditions that rob people of their quality of life and independence as they age — extending the human health span.”

Conboy told Fortune she was trying to steer people away “from the dangers of pseudo longevity.” She said that “aging is not something that is set in stone like a train going on a track,” and that “the overarching goal is to delay or perhaps reverse or even prevent diseases.”

Can Generation Lab deliver on its promises? That remains to be seen, but more than 1,000 people are already on a waiting list for the cheek swab intervention, which costs $400. And that brings up a question of medical ethics.

We already have a crisis of inequity when it comes to access to diagnostics and quality healthcare. As the world’s unprecedented age wave accelerates and the percentage of older people grows, are we establishing new barriers between those who can, and can’t, afford the latest trials and interventions?

“We’re trying to get this as accessible as possible” and to make Generation Lab cheaper after the March trials begin, said CEO Alina Rui Su, who told me one goal is to eventually bring down the price of admission.

I told Conboy the thought of swabbing my cheek and waiting for the results, which might be alarming, could keep me awake at night. And what’s wrong with instead having good old-fashioned regular checkups with my doctor?

Those checkups won’t necessarily identify early signs of trouble, she said, but the Generation Lab diagnostics might.

“Would you want to know that three years from now, or five years from now, you might develop a bad cancer, and knowing might allow you” to begin interventions? she asked.

Good question. I suppose I would, though I think I’ll wait until the price goes down.

Getting more out of our limited time is a worthy endeavor, for sure. But at the risk of being a party pooper, let’s not forget that we’re all dying. Despite the claims of some, it’s the natural order. And there is an aspect of the longevity boom that frames aging, and elderhood, as a wretched disease, to be avoided at any cost. If that’s your outlook, the stress alone might very well kill you, no matter how many pills you take.

My amateur geroscience prescription, free of charge, is that you avoid buying any snake oil, skip the penis monitors, eat right and sleep tight, get some exercise and do things that give you a sense of purpose and pleasure.

If that gets you through today, try it again tomorrow.

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