Two Days Among The Immortals
I just got home from the Personalized Life Extension Conference, which was (of course) in San Francisco and attracted 200 or so attendees in quest of innovative ideas and practical advice regarding how to extend their lives as long as possible.
It was a pretty sophisticated crowd with an attitude both radical and down-to-Earth – the general feeling was something like “We all pretty much believe that ‘longevity escape velocity’ is likely to happen sometime this century, due to a combination of scientific and technological advances, so if we can just live long enough into the century, we may be able to live centuries or millennia or longer. So now the question is: What can we do, in practice, and so increase the odds that we do live long enough to see the really radical life extension technologies emerge?”
Or to put it in Ray Kurzweil’s terms: how can we live long enough to live forever?
If Kurzweil is right, then in 2045 or so, technology will have advanced far enough that involuntary death will be an unlikely tragedy. In that case, what really matters is to keep our meat-bags chugging till that wonderful date. Whether the precise date is really 2045 or not, the concept still has value. Aubrey de Grey has called it “the Methuselarity” — the date at which, if you live that long (by hook or by crook), cascading improvements in life extension technology will likely keep extending your lifespan forever.
Christine Peterson and her colleagues at Foresight Institute did an awesome job of organizing the conference, and kept it carefully balanced between the extremes of too much speculation and theory, and too much emphasis on the very specific recommendations of purveyors of specific diets, supplements, etc. Almost every talk concluded with some concrete recommendations for what you can do in your life to increase your expected healthspan. But many of the talks also had some interesting theoretical meat to chew on.
What’s the take away message? What do the experts say you should do if you want to live long enough to live forever?
A capsule summary would go something like: sleep long and well and regularly; exercise at least a couple hours a week; eat healthy; fast sometimes; minimize carbs or pack them all into a single meal each day (especially if you’re over 40); take a multi-vitamin and fish oil and maybe explore other supplements; don’t stress out and maybe meditate occasionally.
And if you’re not sure how well you’re doing with all those things, try to rigorously observe and measure yourself, and see what you can learn.
No shockers there. But the amount of hard scientific evidence in favor of these basic suggestions has increased dramatically in the last couple decades and is downright impressive by now.
If the capsule summary isn’t enough for you, I’ll spell it out just a little more. (And if you want real depth, just go to the websites of the conference speakers, linked from the conference website.)
Exercise — surprise surprise — is super-important for longevity. Mixing different kinds of exercise is good, including aerobic exercise and strength training. Exercising in brief bursts with intervals of rest in between seems particularly useful. Exercising a couple hours a week, doing diverse stuff, can make a big difference. These lessons come from practical experience, but also from physiological understanding.
Another bizarre new revelation: Diet is important for longevity. Don’t eat much junk. Vegetables, good. Candy and McDonald’s burgers, bad.
But there were some nontrivial ideas and discoveries presented as well, regarding the relation between diet and healthspan.
Michael Rose presented an evolutionary argument that the body after age 40 or so is particularly poorly adapted for an agricultural diet – because adaptation for gene-functions that are relevant after the normal reproductive years occurs very slowly. If this is true, then following a “paleo diet” starting middle age is a good idea (lots of veggies and fruit and lean meat, probably some tubers, not much grain)
Jeremy Stone presented an interesting physiological argument that, if you’re going to eat grains or other carbs, you should pack all the carbs into a single meal.
Patri Friedman summarized evidence that “intermittent fasting” (IF) is good for you and may confer all the benefits of calorie restriction (CR) and more. IF comes in many forms, including fasting or near-fasting one or two days each week and then eating normally the other days. Like CR, IF seems to put the body in a sort of “famine alert” mode.
The difficulty of maintaining these beneficial dietary proscriptions in the modern world was highlighted when — right after a speaker emphasized the importance of avoiding eating refined sugar — someone pointed out that the conference hotel had graciously supplied each of the tables where the audience members sat with a little bowl of hard candies. Few of them were eaten. (However, when eating dinner in the hotel, I couldn’t resist chowing down a few of the mints by the cash register — even though I knew, as I did it, it might be taking a few minutes off my life; and these few minutes might cause me to miss the Singularity and not live long enough to live forever!)
If you want to live a long time, nothing’s more important than getting a good night’s sleep. Copious biological evidence regarding the importance of sleep for longevity was discussed. And methods for maximizing sleep amount and quality were reviewed, from having sex before bed and sleeping in a completely dark room to wearing special blue goggles that filter out light in a way calculated to strategically affect hormone activity.
Most of all, avoid red-eye cross-country flights where you get trapped in the middle seat between two extremely obese people, like the one I flew on last night to get home from the Personalized Life Extension conference!
Boredom doesn’t promote mental health or longevity. We evolved to handle — and thrive on — brief intervals of high stress and excitement. But we didn’t evolve for persistent, ongoing, nagging stress. If you want to live a long time, relax. Meditation helps adjust your physiology in a manner copacetic with long life; but most important is to avoid a lifestyle — or a thought-style — that persistently stresses you out.
In the modern world, if you want to be active and productive, you can’t necessarily avoid juggling multiple projects and responsibilities — but you can adjust your attitudes toward these, so that you view it all with a certain mixture of involvement and detachment. The alternative is, literally, stressing yourself to death.
Finally, there are a lot of supplements out there purporting to improve your health and extend your life, and not much agreement among the experts on which ones are really valuable. Taking a multivitamin and fish oil every day was widely recommended — but beyond that, opinions were all over the place.
Terry Grossman, the longevity doctor who coauthored Live Long Enough to Live Forever with Ray Kurzweil emphasizes that most modern folks have insufficient vitamin D, so taking an additional vitamin D pill may be a good idea.
My own turn on stage at the conference was in a shared talk with my colleague Gregory Benford (of science fiction fame). I described our work at Genescient studying the genomics of fruit flies that have been experimentally evolved to live 4x longer than ordinary fruit flies. Some of the genes that seem most important in enabling these “Methuselah flies’” longevity are acted on by available herbs, and Genescient (a firm whose main focus is drug discovery) has spun off a new firm called LifeCode, which is marketing a supplement combining some of these herbs, called StemCell100. The supplement doesn’t cause new stem cells to grow, but there’s evidence it promotes the growth of existing stem cells. When you feed it to fruit flies, it extends their lives by 20% — the crude equivalent of a 16-year lifespan increase in humans.
The Quantified Self
An interesting meme at the conference (discussed in Esther Dyson’s keynote, and also a couple other talks) was the notion of quantifying your behavior in various ways, so as to accurately measure how well you’re doing all the things you know you should be doing to prolong your life. Not just counting your calories and other aspects of your dietary intake, but measuring your sleep duration, using a device to count how many steps you walk each day, and so forth. One speaker showed infrared videos he’d taken of himself sleeping, in quest to cure a case of insomnia (ultimately he determined the secret to good sleep was to sleep with a woman in a large bed and have lots of sex before turning in. It seems plausible this conclusion could have been drawn without fancy cameras and scientific analysis, but what the heck.)
I’m not sure what I think about the quantified self meme. It seems that if you’re reflective and conscious of what you’re doing, you don’t really need that. I can tell, each day, if I walked a lot or sat on my ass in front of the computer screen (like today!). On the other hand, if some people find systematic quantification a useful nudge to their awareness and willpower, who am I to argue with them?
Listen to Your Body, and Maybe I’ll See You After the Singularity
So there you have it.
Exercise, eat healthy and not too much, sleep well, don’t stress out… and you may well live long enough to live forever.
The methods are simple enough in concept, but science is telling us more and more about the details. And we don’t really know how much difference the details make — at least, the experts don’t quite agree on all the particulars. If avoiding agricultural foods like grains after age 40 adds an extra 3 years to your life, this might be just the 3 years you need to make to that magical year when a superhuman AI invents a real longevity pill or figures out how to copy your consciousness into a sturdier robot container. But, on the other hand, maybe the Paleo diet isn’t so important after all, and the most important thing is to take the supplements that extend the lives of fruit flies, or to sleep in a completely dark room.
This brings us back to the “personalized” in the title of the conference. As Christine Peterson (the organizer) said in her own talk: “When people say ‘listen to your body,’ what they really mean is ‘parts of your body are sending analog signals that need to be converted into digital form.’” I kinda prefer “listen to your body,” but whatever. The point is: At this stage, science tells us broadly what sorts of things we need to do to maximize healthspan, and then it gives a lot of interesting specific possibilities. And it’s up to each of us to choose among these possibilities in a way that feels right to our bodies and minds. Which means that ultimately, one of the most important things to do, to achieve a long lifespan, is to cultivate self-awareness.