Aubrey de Grey: Profile of an Immortalist

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My buddy Aubrey de Grey—the anti-aging crusader—is featured in an admiring profile in today's Washington Post. De Grey is the head of the Methuselah Foundation which is offering a cash prize for therapies that can dramatically extend the lives of mice. The idea is that doubling the lifespans of vermin will encourage similar research on human anti-aging therapies. De Grey proposes what he calls Strategies for Engineering Negligible Senescence (SENS) and has held a couple of international conferences on the topic.

De Grey details the challenges and opportunties of the SENS program in his intriguing new book, Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime.

Here's how De Grey described to the Post how the world in which people live for hundreds of years will look:

"If we want to hit the high points, number one is, there will not be any frail elderly people. Which means we won't be spending all this unbelievable amount of money keeping all those frail elderly people alive for like one extra year the way we do at the moment. That money will be available to spend on important things like, well, obviously, providing the health care to keep us that way, but that won't be anything like so expensive. Secondly, just doing the things we can't afford now, giving people proper education and not just when they're kids, but also proper adult education and retraining and so on.

"Another thing that's going to have to change completely is retirement. For the moment, when you retire, you retire forever. We're sorry for old people because they're going downhill. There will be no real moral or sociological requirement to do that. Sure, there is going to be a need for Social Security as a safety net just as there is now. But retirement will be a periodic thing. You'll be a journalist for 40 years or whatever and then you'll be sick of it and you'll retire on your savings or on a state pension, depending on what the system is. So after 20 years, golf will have lost its novelty value, and you'll want to do something else with your life. You'll get more retraining and education, and go and be a rock star for 40 years, and then retire again and so on."

Cannily the the Post reporter asked De Grey:

Why is it, when you bring up the idea of living forever—even if robust and healthy, not drooling on your shoes—some people just recoil viscerally?

"It's probably the majority that recoils viscerally," de Grey says. "It's what I call the pro-aging trance.

"Since the beginning of civilization, we have been aware that aging is ghastly and that aging is utterly inevitable. . . . So we have two choices. Either we spend our lives being preoccupied by this ghastly future or we find some way to get on with our miserably short lives and make the best of it.

"If we do that second thing, which is obviously the right thing to do, then it doesn't matter how irrational that rationalization might be. . . . It could be, well, we're all going to go to heaven. Or it could be, we're going to have overpopulation. Or it could be, it will be boring. Or, dictators will live forever.

"It doesn't matter what the answers are. It's so important for them to maintain their belief that aging is actually not such a bad thing, that they completely suspend any normal rational sense of proportion."

But if people don't die, won't we indeed fill the planet shoulder to shoulder?

"The birthrate is going to have to go down by an order of magnitude," de Grey acknowledges. "But even if that is going to be a severe problem, the question is not, do problems exist? The question is, are they serious enough to outweigh the benefits of saving 100,000 lives a day? That's the fundamental question. If you haven't got an argument that says that it's that serious that we shouldn't save 30 [bleeping] World Trade Centers every [bleeping] day, don't waste my time. It's a sense of proportion thing."

Whole Post De Grey profile here.

Take a look at my article, Forever Young, here.

NEXT: White-Haired Men Love Weed

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  1. As a life-loving atheist, this is the most exciting new frontier of all. I worry, however, that I would just have that much more time to play Civilization IV.

  2. If people are going to live forever, I have to revise my estimate of Ron Paul’s chances.

  3. One drawback of living forever is having to hunt down and decapitate all other immortals.

  4. Sounds like an Anne Rice novel.

  5. They should also offer vermin with long-lived grandparents incentives to marry each other and start families.

  6. *SMILES QUIETLY TO SELF, AS IF CONFIRMING SOMETHING*

    THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!!!!!!11111!!!ONEONEONE!!!!!

  7. If people lived for a 1000 years, society would have to be radically restructured. First, birth rates would have to dramatically decline. The pleasure of having children would have to be restricted. Even if everyone just had children early in their lives, the population would still boom because it would take so long for people to die. If people had children throughout their lives, it would be even worse. Imagine what a few million Methuselahs having hundreds of children would do to world population. Maybe we could move to space or taraform Mars to solve the space problem but absent that it would be a disaster.

    If we get to live this long, we don’t get to have children. Also, marriage becomes a real problem. Marriage was invented out of necessity and when people, especially women lived much shorter lives. As recently as 100 years ago, most people didn’t live much past 60. That meant that they were only married to each other for a few decades at most before one of them died. I know everyone says that love is forever, but I am not really sure most couples could actually stay together for hundreds of years. People would have to look at marriage much differently than they do now. It would have to be considered more of a temporary arrangement than a lifetime commitment.

    Life this way while longer would certainly be different and I am not sure all that better. It is the same issue mankind has always faced, to live the short exciting glorious life or the long boring one just writ large. I can’t imagine how boring life would be after a few hundred years of it. You would have read all the books you wanted, heard all the music to be heard and had nearly every interesting experience to be had.

  8. If you take out infant mortality, life expectancy really hasn’t changed that much since 1900.

  9. Ron Paul’s chances:

    Normal lifespan – 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,00
    Immortality – 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,

  10. “If you take out infant mortality, life expectancy really hasn’t changed that much since 1900.”

    True, most life expectancy changes have come from going after the easy stuff like having clean water and proper sanitation and having anti-biotics to keep the flue from being the leading cause of death. But, I think DeGray’s point is that we are about to be able to deal with the hard stuff and prevent our bodies from wearing out, in which case life expectency will go very high.

  11. Imagine life after a couple of thousand years where you are so bored with the pleasures of this world you are starting to go insane. Would suicide be an appropriate option? Perhaps to you but what about the damage that would do to your loved ones? Being stuck in a horrible life you are so bored with that you can’t stand living it anymore but unable out of a sense of obligation to those around you to end you life through the only method available. That kind of sounds like hell.

  12. add a few more zeros and commas, and you’d get EDDDDWWWWAAAAARRRRDDDDDDOOOOO’s chances of gettin laid!

    bazing! did not go there! oh yes he did!

    WUQQA WUQQA.

    Cesar –

    Cutler has a paper on the determinants of Mortality which is excellent! Easterlin (2004) also has a good paper!! Talk about how increase of life expectancy occurred exactly because of the decrease in infant mortality. good call!

  13. But, I think DeGray’s point is that we are about to be able to deal with the hard stuff and prevent our bodies from wearing out, in which case life expectency will go very high.

    Its possible, but I’m skeptical we will ever have eternal life. Nor should we. We must die so we can make room for the next generation. Yes, I think we should do it for the children, for once.

  14. How would I ever inherit anything from my parents?

  15. “Its possible, but I’m skeptical we will ever have eternal life. Nor should we. We must die so we can make room for the next generation. Yes, I think we should do it for the children, for once.”

    True. I wouldn’t want forever, but a couple of hundred years of really good health would be nice. It is not like I would get bored that quick. But eternal life? No thanks.

  16. What about the funeral homes? Anyway de Grey thinks we’ll still need social scurity. He’s obviously a hard-line welfare-statist. Imagine the nanny-state traffic laws. Nobody would want to dies in an accident.

  17. Because this is all about a new paradigm, it is very difficult to understand in the current paradigm. Once we reach this point of life extension, it’s foolish to think everything else will still be as it is today. This kind of life extension is 20-70 years off, depending on who you ask. What’s the time frame for that mars colony? for the ion drive? for warp speed? for understanding and living in the 6-11 dimensional universe we can’t comprehend now?
    by the time this is a reality, we will have borg cubes cruising the universe, jumping in and out of multiverses.
    again, our feeble minds can’t comprehend this stuff.
    Spore will help us understand, as does “the singularity is near.”

  18. One things for sure, if people could live 200 years it would be a boon for historians.

  19. Immortality. Drinking and smoking for centuries on end. The puritans are not gonna like that. Not one bit.

  20. “You’ll get more retraining and education, and go and be a rock star for 40 years, and then retire again and so on.”

    HA! Tell that to the Rolling Stones.

    “De Grey is the head of the Methuselah Foundation which is offering a cash prize for therapies that can dramatically extend the lives of mice.”

    Ask Stephen King about the Green Mile.

  21. Hell with imortality, I want that pill I can take every day that keeps me in perfect physical condition, say maxing the Army PT test and at an ideal weight while still being able to eat, drink or take whatever drugs with absolute inpunity without ever having to work out.

  22. John, thats the best idea I’ve ever heard. I hope theres a scientist working on it somewhere.

  23. John, I would think the anti-aging pill and your pill would be very closely related. Work on one is probably work towards the other.

    This will happen eventually. In the meantime we will probably have vat-grown stem cell replacement organs, which would help old people a lot. Yeah, it wouldn’t make them look young again, but a new liver, heart, pancreas, and lungs could make a big difference for life expectancy.

    No new brain though 🙁 Too bad, that would be great for politicians.

  24. Episiarch,

    I think the home grown organs will happen in my lifetime. I also think lab grown food will happen to. I wish space travel would happen, but I am not too optimistic about that one.

  25. I wonder if vegans will eat lab-grown meat?

  26. and having anti-biotics to keep the flue from being the leading cause of death.

    Not to be pedant but….

    The flu is a virus and antibiotics (which kill bacteria, not viruses) don’t do a damn thing to the flu. Even if you develop pneumonia because of the flu, chances are it’s viral pneumonia, and still not treatable with antibiotics.

    It irks me when people say things like this because it tends to leads people with viruses to demand antibiotics which won’t help.

    Also, a “flue” is something that allows you to release exhaust gases. Normally I don’t correct spelling, but in this case, the “misspelled” word actually is a real word.

  27. Stick it up your ass Tom. Really. Stick it up really far and as hard as you can. The point was that improvements and water and sanitation and an understanding of what actually causes illness as well as the development of antibiotics is what accounts for most of the rise in life expectancies in the last 100 years. It was solving the basic problems of health that did that, not the high tech stuff.

  28. Stick it up your ass Tom. Really. Stick it up really far and as hard as you can

    Go fuck yourself John.

    I know damn well what the point was. But your point loses credibility when you get basic facts wrong.

    If you don’t like to be corrected, don’t post wrong/inaccurate statements of fact, you thin skinned little ignorant bitch.

  29. even if it was feasible for many people to make their bodies survive for much longer than they do now (or ‘jump’ into newly created ones, since we’re talking sort of sci-fi here), how would the mind cope? i could foresee a sharp, healthy, well-maintained human mind lasting a few hundred years while remembering as much of that life as most modern elderly do, and I suppose some of the life-expanding techniques might also apply to the mind and mind-body connection (and “we only use 10% anyway” or whatever), but there must be a limit before some kind of zen-yoda mental state would have to apply to keep remembering things.. could the mind keep performing at a high level for a thousand years? speculate!

  30. NERD FIGHT!!!

    Just kiddding. Calm down, you guys.

    The aging issues raises a whole host of fascinating social issues. Already raised was marriage and children. There’s also inheritance, nepotism, royal succession (not important to 99.9999% of the population but watching Charles’ face if he found out he would basically NEVER be King would be hilarious; as it is his mom is gonna live a long time) and other stuff like that.

    There’s also things like: how would it affect you if you looked the same age as your parents once you hit your mid-twenties? Where you couldn’t tell a person’s age unless they were under 20? The chick you just hit on could be 300 years old, while you are 25!

    Super interesting.

  31. “Perhaps to you but what about the damage that would do to your loved ones?”

    Actually, I think immensely prolonged lifespans would probably change the concept of a “loved one”.

    Specifically to avoid boredom, people’s connections to each other would probably be much more brief than they are now. After all, there is always the chance to make it up later. A highly long-lived being doesn’t face the desperation of finitude. You can be estranged from your loved ones for a century, and still return to them.

    So you’d probably have a large number of “loved ones”, each of whom also would have their own wide range of contacts – if someone drops out due to ennui, those who remain would not notice as much as you do now if you lose a family member or spouse.

  32. So, would risk taking of all types increase?

    John,

    The point was that improvements and water and sanitation and an understanding of what actually causes illness as well as the development of antibiotics is what accounts for most of the rise in life expectancies in the last 100 years.

    Actually, what is probably most important over the past several hundred years is better nutrition*. Better nutrition helps an individual across a range of factors, including the ability to fend off disease.

    *Indeed, there is something of a correlation between the two in European history following the start of the 17th century.

  33. I think the biggest factor in a doubling of lifespans would be the exact technical mechanism by which it would be implemented

    Right now, Bill Gates is not expected to live any longer than any other middle or upper class non-smoking white male who grew up in the Pacific Northwest. If however, he could spend 1 billion (or 100 million, or 10 million) dollars to live twice as long, the backlash would be tremendous.

    Even if lifespan doubling treatments are as common as flouridation, it will still cause a gap in the haves and have-nots (which would actually be almost congruent to today’s gap, so their may not be as much impact in this last case.)

    I am not against such research, on the contrary, I would love an extra fifty years to see and live in all the places I’d like to. I just think, like John and others above, such a discovery may obsolete some our critical political postulates, for instance, that all men are created equal

  34. It’s Halloween.
    We need something scary to go with this.
    Picture the following.
    Immortality drugs that work.
    Take a pill once a month and you don’t age.
    The government, in the interest of “fairness”, controls the distribution of the immortality pill.
    Sweet dreams, everybody.

  35. Imagine life after a couple of thousand years where you are so bored with the pleasures of this world you are starting to go insane. [etc. blah blah negativity precautionary principle blah blah]That kind of sounds like hell.

    As opposed to what? Having less than 5% of that much time on earth capped off with a few years of most definitely hell as your body falls apart?

  36. If however, he could spend 1 billion (or 100 million, or 10 million) dollars to live twice as long, the backlash would be tremendous.

    Why? Its not hurting anyone else, and might well give a lot of people hope.

  37. If however, he could spend 1 billion (or 100 million, or 10 million) dollars to live twice as long, the backlash would be tremendous.

    I bet he already is. If I had that much cash, you bet your ass I’d be spending a tremendous amount on funding this sort of research. I’d just keep it quiet, Lex Luthor style. I’m sure Gates and many other incomprehensibly wealthy people are.

  38. I recently finished reading the Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy (Kim Stanley Robinson), in it he does one of the best explorations I remember of what an extended lifetime would realistically be like:

    Even with population controls the population quickly goes to 20+ Billion, huge civil unrest is caused by the increased population and the limited access to the long life treatment. An interesting idea is that the unrest and population increase would only be temporary, as long as people don’t start having more kids than they do now, the moment people start dying at 200 (or whatever age is the new “average”) the population goes back down to pre-treatement levels, eventually you get a new balance.

  39. I also remember another story (don’t remember name or author, read it in Isaac Asimov’s magazine a while back) about the discovery of an immortality treatment, the only caveat is that you have to be less than a certain age (I don’t remember the exact age). Can you imagine being past that age when the treatment is discovered? being the last generation on earth to die… that would totally suck.

  40. R.C.-
    I agree that it would not be “hurting” anyone else. I wish, however, I had your faith that it would give a lot of people hope. The people on the planet I live on have a nasty tendency to be petty, jealous, and suceptible to the demogogary (sp? or better, word?) that not having being able to have the same life extending treatments as those richer than they are is “hurting” them.

  41. The people on the planet I live on have a nasty tendency to be petty, jealous, and suceptible to the demogogary (sp? or better, word?) that not having being able to have the same life extending treatments as those richer than they are is “hurting” them.

    Read

  42. John and Tom,

    You both missed the obvious “Stick it up your flue!!” line.

    If you’re gonna bitch at each other, at least be entertaining.

  43. J sub D
    Interesting. I’ve actually never read anything of Heinlein’s except Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. The ‘trek through the stars’ part of Methuselah’s Children looks like a cross between Poul Anderson’s Boat of a Million Years with some of Asimov’s stuff.

  44. Kenny, Read “Time Enough for Love”. I highly recommend it.

  45. Aubrey is great. I’m reading his book, Ending Aging, and I’ve donated to the Methuselah Foundation. I suggest you read his book or at least watch his TED conference and make up your own mind.

    Here’s the link to the TED video:

    http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/39

  46. Kenny, Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” is a great read for libertarians.

  47. Got it. I see their both in stock at the library. I’ll probably pick them up on my way home from work. Does that make me a bad libertarian? 🙂

  48. how tedious would a 60 year old be to behold from the vantage of a 400 year old?

  49. One thing that would scare the daylights out of me is the possibility (however remote) hard-core criminals like serial killers, rapists, child molesters, ect. coluld live very long lives commiting these horrible despicable acts. What do we do with them?

  50. One thing that would scare the daylights out of me is the possibility (however remote) hard-core criminals like serial killers, rapists, child molesters, ect. coluld live very long lives commiting these horrible despicable acts. What do we do with them?

    Imagine that you have been time-machined to, say, the year 1700. You are in a lecture hall, where the speaker is suggesting that most people could live past the age of 30 if only we built sewer systems and got everyone to wash their hands once in a while. When it came time for the Q&A after his talk, would you raise your hand and ask whether his crazy ideas might lead to the lives of hard-core criminals being extended?

  51. What do we do with them?

    Prison? Execution? How would this be anything different than now?

    Or do you mean you’re just disturbed that they might have more time to rack up higher kill totals.

  52. The latter. Granted some of those types of these souless creatures do get stopped yet there are others who have been able to get away with their crimes for a couple of decades. While me fears maybe unfounded I cannot dismiss this possibility.

  53. “We must die so we can make room for the next generation. Yes, I think we should do it for the children, for once.”

    I’m sorry… but WTF!

    Why does a person younger than me have a higher priority? Or a person who doesn’t even exist yet for that matter? I don’t have kids and probably won’t so this type of attitude bugs me. If you want kids fine, have them but don’t expect others to make sacrifices so you can satisfy a want(not need).

    If reproduction is that important to you have kids but give up your place in line for the longevity treatments.

    There are definitely other options. One child per 150 years or have a child when/if you decide you’re ready to give it up and swallow a gun barrel.

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