Longevity: ‘money-spinning cult’ or the future of health?

BBC presenter discovers that the longevity industry isn’t just about billionaires trying to cheat death.

This weekend, the BBC will air a special 30-minute technology feature that turns the spotlight on the world of longevity. The Forever Young? episode follows presenter Lara Lewington as she travels to California to meet the tech entrepreneurs and scientists attempting to slow, stop and reverse the aging process. Her journey covers many aspects of longevity – from discovering the concept of healthspan and how to improve it, meeting a tech entrepreneur spending $2m a year to reduce his biological age, and even longevity for dogs.

Longevity.Technology: While those already embedded in the field don’t need to be convinced about the value of targeting aging, most people remain blissfully unaware of the exciting work going on in longevity. But times are a-changin’. With mainstream global news channels like the BBC highlighting developments in the sector, more and more people are beginning to take an interest in the science of longevity. It’s always interesting to hear an outsider’s perspective on the field, so we caught up with Lewington to see what she made of her induction into the science – and business – of aging.

Longevity: 'money-spinning cult' or the future of health?
Lara Lewington is a technology presenter for the BBC.

Lewington’s interest in longevity was first piqued by news stories that made the longevity field sound like it was purely a whim of US billionaires seeking the fountain of youth.

“I didn’t know whether I was going into the heart of some sort of money-spinning cult, or whether it was actually people who really cared about scientific development and wanted to lead their best lives,” she says. “Once I started looking into it, I realised it wasn’t anywhere near as sensational as some tech billionaires wanting to live forever. I learned that there was a whole industry out there.”

Longevity sector ‘more realistic’ than expected

The longevity ‘industry’ that Lewington describes is largely divided into two main areas.

“You’ve got the whole biotech side where it’s about a potential new frontier of medicine,” she says. “If they can pull that off and create something that works at a cellular level to stop or reverse aging, then, in terms of medical development, that’s enormous. But then there’s this whole other lifestyle side, where you have got some things that seem to be proven to work, and some other things people are doing that don’t seem proven yet.”

Longevity: 'money-spinning cult' or the future of health?
Lewington underwent several longevity tests.

In addition to visiting biotech companies like UNITY Biotechnology and dog longevity company Loyal, Lewington also spoke with leading scientists in the field, including Dr Eric Verdin at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. The overwhelming feeling she gained from those conversation was that people working in the field are much more pragmatic than she thought they would be.

“It felt like everyone I spoke to was very realistic,” says Lewington. “A lot of things have worked in mice that then haven’t worked in humans, and everyone I talked to was very open and honest about that. Probably more so than I expected. Even people running smaller longevity biotechs seemed very measured, and it really felt like they were all in it together.”

Lifestyle is where it’s at… for now

The program also gets a clinical perspective from Dr Jordan Shlain, a practicing primary care doctor in San Francisco.

“Dr Shlain said he had lots of patients coming to him asking for longevity advice,” says Lewington. “And he said you first need to find out what they mean by longevity – what do they want to achieve? He also said it’s about lifestyle changes – not just a magic pill that will fix everything.”

“In fact, that seemed to be the conclusion from almost everybody: It will be great if we can create the drugs that do what they’re meant to, but ultimately, we need to live better lives.”

To further explore this link between lifestyle and longevity, Lewington met with multimillionaire tech entrepreneur Bryan Johnson, who recently made headlines with his plans to spend millions each year to reverse his biological age.

Longevity: 'money-spinning cult' or the future of health?
Lewington meets with Bryan Johnson at his home in California.

“I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to put Bryan in the programme or not, because I was moving away from the whole sensationalist idea of people wanting to live for a really long amount of time,” she says. “But I’m really pleased that I did because he’s making himself a human experiment. He’s testing lots of stuff – some will work, some won’t – but it’s a really interesting experiment. And he’s doing it while being monitored by 30 scientists, but he is still taking risks, of course.”

Bringing longevity into the mainstream

Lewington says that the lifestyle aspect of longevity permeated the entire field. As a non-drinker, she describes her joy at seeing unopened bottles of wine at a longevity event, and being fascinated meeting people who set their alarm clocks to go to bed, rather than to get up.

“I met with founders and people who are working on the science, and they still think that the most important thing we can be doing is to be looking after ourselves properly,” she says. “They weren’t talking about cryo chambers or ice baths – they were talking about making sure you exercise regularly, eat well and get your eight hours sleep. I came back feeling it’s just really important to live your healthiest life. And it’s as simple as that. Although it’s not always that simple to actually do it!”

Through the program, Lewington hopes to help bring the longevity message to a more mainstream audience.

“I’m trying to take away that sensationalist view of longevity being about living to 150, because there’s actual real stuff out there that can help people increase their healthspan to live the later years of their lives better – and that’s probably a more realistic aim,” she says. “Yes, it may end up resulting in a few extra years of life, but I think it’s more about getting people to understand that there is work happening that may mean those final years or decades of our lives don’t have to be so difficult.”

Forever Young airs this weekend across the BBC’s international network.

Photographs provided by the BBC