Can We Live Longer—Or Forever?
Experts review five ways extensionists are trying to extend their lives.
Most of us have accepted that our time on Earth has an expiration date. But some researchers and a few ambitious Silicon Valley titans have begun to question whether our years are really numbered. Maybe if we tinkered around with the body—adjusted our diet, popped a promising supplement, tried out some experimental tactics—we could push that date. Maybe we could even live forever. “Today, we’re starting to really think, is aging and death a natural process or is it associated with less-than-optimal functioning?” says Equinox advisory board member Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D., founder of the Institute for Functional Medicine. “If we could optimize everything in our environment, would that eradicate death? That’s something we’re trying to figure out now.”
In their quest to extend life, some enthusiasts are picking up new habits in hopes of tacking on a few more years or even decades. Here’s how their aspirational tactics measure up against science.
NEXT LEVEL SUPPLEMENTS
The claim: Five hundred dollars will get you a one year supply of Basis, a supplement that’s reported to increase levels of NAD+, a coenzyme that helps energy production, regulates circadian rhythms, maintains the health of DNA, and unfortunately, declines as we age. Two of its main ingredients, pterostilbene and nicotinamide riboside, are also thought to activate sirtuins, which are proteins—fueled by NAD+—that play a role in turning our genes on and off in response to environmental changes. In mouse studies, it’s been shown to rejuvenate cells.
The expert opinion: For a while, Basis’ claims were only backed up by animal studies, but recent research found that people who took Basis once a day had 40 percent higher levels of NAD+ levels after four weeks. Still, it’s not clear if that increase necessarily translates to a longer and healthier lifespan for humans. “There’s no evidence that it’s not safe, but I think that at this point, we’re still waiting for more human trials to better evaluate what the outcomes are,” Bland says.
The claim: Many immortalists swear by some form of fasting. Instead of taking in three square meals a day (or six smaller ones) they’re switching to something more restrictive. There are two basic fasting formats: one is your purely calorie restriction and the other has you eating during short intervals and abstaining from food for at least 12 to 16 hours (sometimes even a day or two). The thinking is that fasting pushes the body to repair cells and burn fat instead of glucose, staving off conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and maybe even cancer.
The expert opinion: Scientists seem to be optimistic about fasting practices that aren’t too restrictive. For example, researchers at the University of Southern California found that people who followed a fast-mimicking diet—where you eat normally for five days a week and then limit yourself to around 600 calories the other two days—lowered their blood pressure, body fat, and waist size, conditions which are typically risk factors for disease. An earlier study found that mice who were put on the same diet lived longer, experienced less incidences of cancer, and had better cognitive abilities; and a small human trial in that same study showed that they had decreased risk factors and biomarkers for aging, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. “Put together, for researchers, this work gives us the confidence that our eating patterns really do influence our bodies right down to the cellular level—something really important is happening here,” says Bland.
AN OFF-LABEL PILL FOR LONGEVITY
The claim: Metformin is an inexpensive, generic drug prescribed to people with type 2 diabetes and often to those with prediabetes to help keep their blood sugar levels stable. But recent research uncovered it could maybe do much more than that. Studies found that diabetics who took the drug lived longer, were less likely to get dementia and Alzheimer’s, and seemed to get cancer less frequently than diabetics on other medications. As a result, the drug has been picked up by the tech crowd—who are not diabetics themselves—in hopes that they too can be granted the same life-prolonging perks.
The expert opinion: Unlike other more experimental and less rigorously tested practices, metformin has been tested on humans, which is somewhat promising. “But the data from non-diabetics doesn’t exist, which makes me wonder what the long-term effects are for people without that condition,” says Pamela Peeke, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland and a member of the Equinox advisory board. “It’s also worth noting that with lifestyle interventions, the eventual goal is to get diabetics off of metformin. I’m not convinced that we want to be taking something that’s meant to hopefully be a short-term solution.”
A SUPER PHYSICAL
The claim: San Diego based company, Health Nucleus, offers a physical like no other. In addition to standard lab tests, the $25,000 comprehensive regimen includes genome and microbiome sequencing, a whole body MRI, and a CT scan of the heart. Founder J. Craig Venter says the Health Nucleus exam has found “something seriously wrong” in 40 percent of participants, though he didn’t specify what that meant exactly. Proponents of the extensive physical say its cutting-edge technology can sniff out disease earlier than other tests, leading to quicker interventions and more effective treatments, thereby extending life.
The expert opinion: Based on your personal and family medical history, you might need tests beyond those included in a standard physical, says Peeke. But she’s not convinced that everyone needs to get everything tested, even with super innovative technology. “We don’t have a lot of information on how successful this testing has been and if it’s generating false positives, so it’s hard to say if it really is effective,” she says. “Most tests will find something even if they are not looking for it, so we really only want to order them if we have reason to believe something is wrong, otherwise it will likely lead to more testing and unnecessary anxiety and costs for the patient.”
The claim: For $8,000, you could receive a blood transfusion from a young adult. The vampiric gifting took off after studies in mice found that older mice lived longer and improved their ability to learn and remember.
The expert opinion: Until it’s more rigorously studied, this practice gets a hard no from doctors. “Even if blood has been tested for disease and the blood types of the donor and recipient match, any kind of blood transfusions still come with a big risk,” says Equinox advisory board member James Pinckney II, MD, founder of Diamond Physicians in Dallas. “It’s very possible that the recipient’s immune system will attack the red blood cells of the donor because they don’t recognize them, which can lead to fever, hives, and even death if the body completely rejects it. It would be a high price to pay for something that not validated by science.”
Photo: Stefan Giftthaler / thelicensingproject.com