Discover more from Sarah Fay
Who Wants to Live Forever?
Part 2 in our four-part series on life and death
Reading time: 15 min.
Answer: At least enough people to justify holding a conference about it.
I’ve never been interested in living forever. Still, one pandemic afternoon, I found myself registering for RAADFest 2021. The subtitle of the conference was Design Your Superlongevity. It was produced by the Coalition for Radical Life Extension, which I knew nothing about.
Of the two types of longevitists—those who want to live forever versus those who simply want to live well as they get old, perhaps making it to one hundred—the Coalition for Radical Life Extension falls into the immortality-evangelist category. Its website states that its members aspire to “unlimited lifespans.” In addition to RAADfest, it educates the public on the dangers of aging and the need for immortality for all.
Immortality evangelists see aging as a war that must be battled against and won. The British geneticist and gerontologist H.R. Moody was one of the first to frame aging as a disease rather than a natural part of life. Organizations like Fight Aging! (exclamation point theirs) took up this idea, seeing aging as an illness akin to cancer: “It saps our strength…and eventually kills us.” In the war against aging, immortality evangelists arm themselves by undergoing experimental cell replacement therapies, sleeping on electromagnetic mats (face-up, always), and taking hundreds of supplements a day.
This kind of thinking—aging is a sickness, aging is the enemy—risks stigmatizing the elderly and giving the rest of us an unhealthy relationship with aging and death, but wishing for immortality is something humans have been doing since antiquity. The Ancient Greeks’ gods and goddesses drank and dined on ambrosia, which was said to grant immortality—or at least longevity—to the gods and goddesses who consumed it.
In Greek mythology, one mortal granted immortality was Tithonus. It didn’t go well. Eos, the goddess of the dawn, was in love with him and asked Zeus to make him immortal so they could be together forever. But she forgot to request that he also have eternal youth. Tithonus became immortal but just kept getting older and older. His body withered. His mind grew feeble to the point that he babbled ceaselessly. Some say he was eventually turned into a cicada, his babbling having been transmuted into the haunting vibratory sound they make.
Being a longevitist doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a fringe fanatic and want to live forever. Government bodies working toward longevity primarily want to make aging easier and better. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has within it a National Institute on Aging (NIA), which describes itself as a response to the vast number of aging Baby Boomers, funds research on the genetic, biological, behavioral, social, and economic factors that go into aging and late-life illnesses like dementia and Alzheimer’s. The Academy for Health and Lifespan Research brings together researchers from universities like Harvard and MIT to slow aging. Groups like the Alliance for Aging Research and the American Federation for Aging Research want to reverse the aging process in such a way that we can live into old age without feeling its effects. Less official groups also want to prevent us from ending up trapped in a failing body full of pain.
According to one poll, most Americans would like this. Seems the majority of us want to live to be one hundred years old—but only if our quality of life is good. We would ultimately choose to avoid pain and stress in old age over trying to live as long as possible. But like Tithonus, we don’t get to decide that.
I hadn’t thought much about how long I want to live and don’t know why I registered for RAADFest 2021. Maybe, given that Covid-19 was killing hundreds of thousands of Americans, death was starting to feel a little too close. Maybe with all that was happening, I’d blocked out the future threat of climate change and thought living forever might be a good idea.
Maybe I just needed a distraction while in quarantine, which may also be why I adopted a seven-month-old Birman. Birmans are rare-ish cats originally bred in Burma as temple cats. He was stunningly handsome—white with tabby markings and a floofy tail to beat all floofy tails. His father was a champion show cat—the number four Birman in the world and the number one tabby Birman. (Tabby cats have stripes on their legs and a marking in the shape of an m on their foreheads.)
I named him Siddhartha—Siddhi for short—because of his big Buddha belly, a signature of the breed. And because he often looked not at me but into me as if he knew far more than I did about the nature of life and death.
He arrived the day before RAADFest 2021 and mostly hid under the bed. Occasionally, he came out to explore his new surroundings.
That night, I filled out my pre-conference assessment. It promised to build my super-longevity blueprint that would serve as my step-by-step guide to immortality. The assessment was made up of six categories: senolytics, musculoskeletal strength, education, brain health, and sexual health. I had to look up senolytics, which are a class of drugs that researchers believe can be used to destroy cells that cause disease and aging.
My assessment mainly offered me products to buy (through the RAADFest website, of course) and suggestions on how I could stave off death. Many weren’t unreasonable: whey protein isolate, an osteoporosis medication; lifting weights; drinking black tea for its bio-flavonoids. Other untested drugs and treatments were more controversial: NAD+, MOTS-C, Fistetin supplements, powder oxygen.
And rapamycin. Rapamycin is big in immortality and longevitist circles. Before it was an anti-aging drug, it was used to stop transplant patients from rejecting their new organs. It has only ever been tested on mice. It’s unlikely that a study will show its longevity efficacy because drug trials lasting decades (centuries?) would be too expensive. Rapamycin is thought to work because it mimics fasting, and calorie restriction has been shown to prolong life and enhance health in nonhuman animals.
My superlongevity blueprint was disappointing. It offered just one action step: maintain a healthy weight for optimized brain function. Okay. Anything else?
For two days, while Siddhi hid and occasionally sniffed around, I sat at my desk and attended RAADfest via Zoom. Onscreen was a stage, a couple of stools, and large TV monitors on which speakers and entertainment were broadcast. Onstage was a man who looked much like you’d think someone waging war against aging would look: skin sun-kissed and dewy; a full head of hair (blonde, not grey); intermittent-fasting thin. He introduced himself as Coalition for Radical Life Extension Director James Strole.
Clearly, Strole hadn’t read the myth of Tithonus, or if he had, he failed to heed its warning. Strole announced (with the gods in earshot) that his goal was to “end aging and death.” Longevity was his life’s purpose. He urged us to get out of the duality of “life-and-death thinking.” He said he was part of an army of people and asked us to join them. “Death isn’t inevitable,” he said.
After Strole was finished, a woman with a chubby, cherubic face took the stage. She asked us to donate—the first of about a thousand times I’d be asked to do so. She was one of the rare women to take the stage. It seems that most immortality evangelists are men.
The presentations were headier, more academic-ish than I thought they’d be. There were PowerPoint slides with charts and graphs and statistics I couldn’t keep track of.
Ultimately, the festival dragged on, which made me wonder if that’s what living forever would feel like. There was a strange improvisational dance performance. A presenter talked at length about metformin, an anti-diabetic medication thought to retard aging. (No presenter mentioned that the drug has actually been found to diminish how well people age, bringing to mind dear Tithonus.)
There was an unsettling interview with (who else?) George Hamilton, who is eighty-two and looks like an eighty-two-year-old wanting to combat death might look: skin plastic surgery taut, tan to the point of appearing as if Midas had turned him not into gold but bronze. He spoke not of anti-aging and instead rambled on about the high points of his career in a sad, Norma-Desmond kind of way.
A panel discussion about the exosomes controversy followed. Exosomes are minuscule, fluid-filled sacs in the body that can change how cells function and behave. Exosome therapy is doled out via IV or injections even though 1) exosomes can make cells work against the body as easily as it can restore it to health (despite false claims that exosome treatment can only benefit the body), and 2) the FDA issued health warnings against exosome therapy after it made people seriously ill.
While one speaker waxed on about the “longevity revolution,” I went online (do I really want to google forever?) and found other options for immortality. The Harvard psychiatrist Richard Lifton outlines four different types: biologic (believing that you live on through your children and grandchildren and subsequent heirs), religious (having faith that the soul continues after the body shuts down), and nature (finding consolation in the fact that nature is limitless and eternal). I have no kids and no religion. I grew up in an urban area, and although I appreciate nature, I don’t feel a solid connection to any part of it—except the sky. The sky gets me. Although I have creative symbolic immortality through my published work and writing, that struck me as not enough.
I tuned back into RAADFest for a strangely engaging presentation delivered by a dentist, Dr. Ingo Mahn. Mahn talked about the mouth as the gateway to the body and the area we should be most concerned with in our attempts to live longer. Our teeth cause illness. Mercury fillings poison us. Those who grind our teeth at night aren’t just responding to stress; our bodies are doing CPR on themselves after our (perhaps undiagnosed) sleep apnea has caused us to stop breathing.
Mahn’s presentation affected me deeply. I’m a severe teeth-grinder. The idea that each night, I was dying a little death terrified me.
By the end of day three, I sat at my kitchen table eating an immortality-worthy meal of kale and sweet potatoes. I desperately wanted to get my epigenetic age measured, which may or may not register biomarkers to show that I’m younger than my chronological age. I googled where to buy metformin and rapamycin. Intermittent fasting seemed necessary, even though I hate to fast.
Just then, I sensed something in the room. My handsome cat sat in the doorway. His white fur extended almost like an aura around his plump body. His eyes were sleepy, almost soporific. He was pure calm, like a little Buddha. He considered me, his expression saying, Why are you trying to control what can’t be controlled?
Purchase Pathological: The True Story of Six Misdiagnoses (HarperCollins)—Sarah Fay’s memoir of and journalistic investigation into the validity of mental health diagnoses
Don’t miss an issue. Subscribe!
#curious #mentalhealth #onbeing #startwithaquestion #longevity #aging