Is Longevity Research Worth the Investment?


It seems that every other week we hear about a new billionaire funding research into how we can stop aging and live longer, healthier lives. The venture capitalist Robert Nelsen and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos are funding Altos Labs, which boasts Nobel Prize winners David Baltimore and Jennifer Doudna on its board of directors. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has established the Allen Institute for Cell Science. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and Bezos are also investors in Unity Biotechnology and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman has invested in Retro Biosciences.

Cellular vs. Population Research

At the same time, celebrity doctor Peter Attia in his book Outlive:The Science & Art of Longevity already purports to be able to tell us how we can live longer. In our own backyard, David Sinclair, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School’s Paul F. Glenn Laboratories for the Biological Mechanisms of Aging, is the author of Lifespan: Why We Age – and Why We Don’t Have To which explains how to delay the aging of our cells, including intermittent fasting, exercise, and supplements.

Health reporter Carey Goldberg in an article in The Boston Globe described a course she audited at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole about the latest science on aging, most of which focuses on aging at the cellular level.

Other studies instead look at large populations to try to determine what factors or patterns lead to long, healthy lives and which to shorter, sicker ones. These seem to conclude that exercise, the so-called “Mediterranean” diet, and social activity make the most difference. Health journalist Judy Foreman explains the benefits of exercise in her book Exercise is Medicine: How Physical Activity Boosts Health and Slows Aging.

Still another avenue of research tries to determine what’s different about, including the New England Centenarian Study at the Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine at Boston University. In the popular Netflix series, Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones, the author Dan Buettner travels to parts of the world where people live much longer to see what distinguishes them. Again, the main practices they seem to have in common are physical activity and a Mediterranean diet, as well as strong social connections.

Baby Boomer Denial of Aging

It probably should not be a surprise that this focus on longevity research is happening as the baby boomers are moving into their senior years. We grew up in the youth culture of the 1960s and always thought of ourselves as remaining young. Now, we’re resisting the inevitability of aging. In an article in The New York Times Magazine, Canadian columnist Mereille Silcoff decries the fact that all the contestants in the Golden Bachelor, a new version of the Bachelor reality TV program for the baby boom generation, look much younger, fitter and sexier than their years. “This feels more like a denigration of aging,” she says. “Some of these people have been on Earth for 75 years. Here is an opportunity for them to demonstrate that life, comfortingly, has many chapters — that there is always change and that this change is not only natural, but good.”

I feel quite mixed both about all this research into holding back the inevitability of aging and denial of aging by baby boomers. On the one hand, an active lifestyle including exercise, social activities, and maintaining a purpose all seem to improve the quality of life as well as adding to longevity and extending health. These are also all low-tech pursuits not requiring medicine, supplements or extensive biological research (not that I’m opposed to fundamental scientific research). To the extent that baby boomer denial of the fact that they’re getting old keeps them more active and engaged, that seems like a good development.

The Reality of Decreasing Longevity

But it seems a bit perverse to be investing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars into longevity research at the same time that life expectancy is actually falling in the United States. After consistently rising from 47 years in 1900 to 68 years in 1950 and 79 years by 2019, life expectancy in the United States fell to 77 in 2020 and to 76 in 2021. Some of this is due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the persistence of declining longevity has more to do with obesity and the effects of drug use.

In fact, there’s a growing growing disconnect in terms of health between the “haves” and “have nots” in the United States. The Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who introduced the concept of “deaths of despair” to describe the growing difficulties facing many Americans, more recently in a column in The New York Times describe their research that finds that before the pandemic, 25-year-olds with a college degree could expect to live seven years longer than those without a college degree. Since the pandemic, the discrepancy has grown to eight and a half years.

Investing in Real Longevity and Health Measures

The “haves” in the United States are doing as well as their European and Asian counterparts. The “have nots” are not. It’s no accident that the disjuncture has grown at the same time that inequality in the United States has also grown. And also seems like no accident that those billionaires at the very apex of of the wealth redistribution that is a function of that inequality are the ones funding research to hold back aging.

We already know how to increase the health and extend the lives of as many people as possible — decreased inequality, vital towns, neighborhoods and cities for all, and a strong public health system that promotes exercise and healthy diets. Let’s devote more resources to these tried and true solutions before investing in research that may or may not bring results that non-billionaires may or may not be able to afford.

(If you’ve made it this far, you might also be interested in reading my post “Long and Healthy Life for the Few or the Many?” in my Risking Old Age in America Substack blog.)

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