The age of immortalists is here: Scientists, dreamers, and crucially billionaires who want us to view age as a cureable disease and our final ending as something that can be delayed indefinitely. One estimate predicts that the revenues from the global anti-aging industry will rise from around $200bn to $420bn in 2030. Its positive prospects are evident in the participation of prominent Americans who have made huge fortunes on the internet. Why not death, if many can avoid taxes?
In 2003, Zadie Smith wrote that death is a major affront to American society. It's so anti-aspirational.
It is amazing what happens when big ideas are backed by big money. This can be seen in the sums that Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have invested in anti-ageing research. It is not surprising that Jeff Bezos (Amazon founder and aspiring astronaut) has donated to Altos Labs in California. He previously funded Unity Biotechnology, an anti-ageing startup. According to reports, the company will set up research institutes in the US, UK, and Japan and offer high-paying salaries. According to an insider, the company's initial goal is to study rejuvenation. Its main focus is on biological reprogramming technology that can manipulate cells.
Many other companies, including BioViva and Youthereum Genetics, AgeX Therapeutics, are also working to stop the aging process. You can sometimes get the feeling that some people will eventually discover age-related diseases. However, there is often a feeling of hubrism and money that could be better spent elsewhere. Although anti-ageing research has been around for a while, I am not aware of any company that has successfully advanced any therapy to clinical trials. Shinya Yamanaka, a Japanese scientist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2012 for discovering that single cells can be rejuvenated by bathing them in four proteins. However, some mice developed cancerous tumours from using this technique.
Even if anti-aging techniques do succeed, what are the cultural and social consequences of actually pathologising old ages? Would we expect to live longer if we were expected to continue working indefinitely? How would the planet deal with an ever-growing population? And who would be the first to get in line? These are the questions I believe I have the answers to. These questions are in line with the current negotiations taking place in Glasgow and the lifestyles of some people who have gathered there. George Monbiot, my colleague, recently noted that keeping global temperature rise to 1.5C requires that each person contributes no more than 2 tonnes of CO2 per year. However, the richest 1 percent of the world's population produce more than 70 tonnes per head. Imagine these people living until they are 140, 200, or forever.
All this is analogous to Elon Musk's space travel plans. It also speaks to a relative lack in attention to urgent issues on the planet they want to escape. As with all investments, large sums in the attempt to cheat death could lead to neglecting important aspects of ageing we all face. These include specific conditions and illnesses that are often associated with getting older. (Bezos has, to be fair, also contributed to the dedicated work on dementia and cancer. However, I would say that even more assistance would be welcomed. There are also urgent questions that concern people's daily lives, and these could be answered with more assistance from self-described philanthropists.
Despite the impact of the pandemics, the world's population is growing rapidly. According to the World Health Organization, by 2030, one out of six people will be 60 years old or older. Between 2020 and 2050, the number of people over 80 is expected to increase by three times to 426 millions. These trends are reflected in the UK. We live in a state of collective denial, as shown by the country's continuing contortions regarding social care. You should also consider the sad fact that there are no biohacks for these awful facts. Half of the UK's 75-year-old population lives alone, and half of those over 60 live alone, according to Age UK.
It can be distracting to think about eternal youth. We know from scientific facts that people who live in stable relationships and are immersed in their communities have a longer and healthier life span. The opposite effect is seen when people feel isolated and lonely in later years. Co-housing is a way for people of all ages to live in communities that are built on mutual support and socialising every day. Modern retirement villages are best if people can live in their own homes and have access to a variety of life-enhancing services.
How can we make those innovations available to millions? What would that mean for the health and care system, leisure services, and transport networks? Contrary to the old saying, older people should live closer to the city's centre, and if so, how would this work? What are we going to do if our housing stock is not up to the needs of an ageing population?
Imagine if billionaires of the 21st century were not only able to make headlines and attract attention with their innovative and public-spirited projects, but could also live indefinitely and leave the planet. Instead, they would be able to create earthbound things that can transform people's lives right now. Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish-American businessman, used the money he earned in the steel industry for the construction of 2,500 libraries all over the globe. They could also use their money to fund co-housing, retirement communities, adult education centers, and other projects. These things might not be as exciting as the unrealized promise of a world full of super-humans, however they are much more practical.
Researchers at Harvard University published their latest findings from a study that examined the lives of 268 former students. The study had been conducted in 1938 and expanded to include inner-city Boston residents. It was clear that the study on longevity showed that more than fame or money, close relationships are what keep people happy. But, that these ties are better predictors for long and happy lives than social status, IQ or genes. The immortalism of the famous capitalists misses the point: the best way to live longer and better is not hacking our cells but helping people be more human.