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Can a 93-year-old be as fit and mentally sharp as a 40-year-old?

To nineteenth-century French philosopher Joseph de Maistre, “Every country has the government it deserves.” We can extrapolate his thoughts to the collective cravings of post-postmodern times and state that our contemporary society may deserve the pharmaceutical breakthroughs already on the market —and the ones on which companies are betting on. Our society seems to bet on the breakthroughs it deserves, and only on those.

Polish-born Zygmunt Bauman, another European philosopher this time closer in time to us, reflected on what he called the “liquid modernity” due to the instability and uncertainty faced by individuals today, devoid of credible institutions to lean to and bombarded with all sorts of instant gratification stimuli.

Meet 93-year-old Irishman Richard Morgan; his biomarkers are those of a healthy 40-year-old; image credit: Row2K.com

After Bauman’s death, other authors like German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han have recently analyzed the centrifugation of contemporary society: things and concepts that carried a solid weight disintegrate today, losing their referential meaning while people navigate the world through the lens of their digital tools, often used as Narcissus looking at his reflection (or Snow White’s Evil Queen looking at the mirror and meme derivatives).

Rise of easy cures for contemporary malaises

This would explain why the most valuable company in Europe isn’t French luxury company LVMH nor petrochemical giant, car company, bank, or insurance company but the Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk. Novo Nordisk is capitalizing on the weight-loss drug frenzy thanks to its products Wegovy and Ozempic, which share the same ingredient, semaglutide, proven reliable for weight management since it inhibits appetite.

When two appetite inhibitors have propelled a company to the top, you know that US obesity doctors are getting advantageous treatment (and often fees) from Novo Nordisk and competitors in the new field of weight-loss drugs, but also shows where the interest and priorities of digital pop culture are allocated.

As life has become, according to Byung-Chul Han, more rushed and directionless (The Scent of Time, 2009), the obsession with controlling the intricacies of existence is fostering a new race to revert aging through investments to develop the equivalent for aging of what Wegovy and related drugs are for weight control, Viagra for sexual vigor, or Prozac to treat depression.

While longevity experts and pharmaceutical companies try to make advances in the field beyond the dubious promises of unregulated supplements. Extreme fitness and dubious routines aren’t enough anymore either (actor Mark Wahlberg’s alleged daily routine is a walking meme on the genre), with a personal quest to find medicinal advances resembling the arc of a vintage sci-fi novel.

The fad—and risks—of biohacking

Do-it-yourself biology—or biohacking— is on the rise. As some entrepreneurs are taking matters into their own hands, directly connecting with their audience as lifestyle influences even capable of, well, “reverse the effects of aging,” their personal quest potentially becomes a lucrative business… as long as the self-professed anti-aging techniques align reality with claims (at least to a certain extent).

Consider 46-year-old Bryan Johnson, who earned his fortune creating the mobile paying platform Venmo and now describes himself as the most measured man in history. Johnson claims that the $2-million-a-year age-reversing self-treatment that he’s experimenting with is working as expected. He alleges the regime (which includes eating the last meal of each day at 11 a.m., taking 60-to-111 pills a day, exercise, and a strict follow-up by a team of 30 scientists) is reversing his “biological age,” a term that is growing in preeminence, both in scientific magazines and on social networks.

Johnson eats 70 pounds of vegetables per month, goes to bed at 8:30 p.m. and wakes up at 4:30 a.m. (hello, Mark Wahlberg), with a regimented daily routine that has been designed with the help of an algorithm. He is also sharing his “progress” on his feeds and promoting several businesses around his quest: a community called “DON’T DIE” that he wants to make “planetary,” and selling what he claims is an effective anti-aging regime, called Blueprint, for a $333-a-month subscription (Johnson shared on early January 2024 that applications were open to try out the 90-day “self-experimentation study” for a minimum fee of $999).

Among the products listed on Project Blueprint site, there are “essential” capsules of over-the-counter vitamins and other supplements that have proven erratic in clinical trials, often not showing effects or requiring “more randomized trials” to confirm possible effects. Johnson also offers bottles of olive oil (Mediterraneans seem to have been onto something for millennia), and various food powders (sic). British biologist and YouTuber Andrew Steele puts it this way:

“If I had $100 a month to spend on my health, I’d buy a pair of running shoes in the first month and then use the $1100 I saved over the rest of the year to buy vegetables.”

“The other products are $30-a-pop bottles of olive oil, and various food powders (all of whose costs are specified in servings…hmm).”

“Without going through the exact ingredients, it’s hard to believe that sachets of powder can be healthier than, y’know, actual vegetables.”

Subscription models banking on people’s wishful thinking

Project Blueprint seems to include all the ingredients of the long-lived American Frontier tradition of selling snake oil to highly influenceable customers willing to believe the promises of a potential solution to what propels our mood in literature, philosophy, or art as a species: impermanence —or in more reductive terms: the effects of aging as quantified by biomarkers. At best, the effects of any diet, fasting technique or multivitamin regime on age are inconclusive; at worst, obsessing about aging by ditching a conventionally healthy diet or lifestyle for “quantified” methods like Johnson’s could be detrimental.

The subfield of biology concerned with the effects of aging, or biogerontology, has experienced an influx of private investments, notably by technology moguls, but the field hasn’t yet found a reliable way of determining in individuals the potential discrepancy between chronological age and biological age, or what Morgan Levine, head of the Aging in Living Systems at Yale, calls True Age.

Once it’s possible to determine one’s biological age, some biogerontologists argue, the effects of experimental treatments could be refuted or vindicated. Scientists are using artificial intelligence and big data to develop what until now is the most promising biomarker of aging of them all: the epigenetic clock, or how our cells are programmed to confront aging.

Real queen bees vs. imaginary ones

Biologists are fascinated by the diversity of aging rates among vertebrates. Within mammals, for example, 85% of the protein-coding genes in the human genome are identical to that of a mouse, despite humans living forty times as long as mice do. What’s even more fascinating, argues Yale researcher Morgan Levine, is the diverse lifespan within species; the three castes among honeybees (drones or males, workers or females, and the queen) show a mind-blogging divergence: a few weeks for drones, up to a few months for workers, to the impressive five-year life expectancy of the queen bee.

Whereas the difference between the life expectancy of drones and workers can be explained by genetics since drones have half as many chromosomes as workers, this is not the case between females and the queen bee:

“But genetics does not explain the difference between the workers and the queen, as they have nearly identical genomes. Thus we can rule out the possibility that the queen was endowed with a longevity gene that somehow slows the rate of her demise. Rather, the difference comes down to how environmental signals become coded in their biology.”

True Age: Cutting-Edge Research to Help Turn Back the Clock, p. 42, Morgan Levine, 2022

Paradoxes like the mammoth difference in lifespan between the same species show that there are environmental signals encoded in our biology with the potential to increase our longevity. Among honeybees, a difference triggered by diet shows a four to tenfold lifespan divergence:

“The important takeaway, however, is that this goes to show that the rate of aging is highly malleable and may not require gene editing (or changing what it means to be human). Like the honeybee, our bodies are programmed to alter their functioning based on inputs from the world around us. This includes signals from our lifestyle, behaviors, physical environment, and even psychological states. By figuring out how the body responds to the outside world and to itself, we may be able to increase healthspan and life span, but to what end?

True Age: Cutting-Edge Research to Help Turn Back the Clock, p. 44, Morgan Levine, 2022

Exploiting the brand of the Blue Zones

The contemporary fascination for aging has also reached Netflix, with National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner’s 2023 series, “Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones,” a quest to uncover the ancestral “lessons on longevity” of the regions with the highest number of centenarians: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Loma Linda, California. The series focuses on the food and lifestyles that positively impact these regions’ health:

“The essence of Blue Zones is people live a long time not because of the things we think — they’re not on diets, they’re not on exercise programs, they don’t take supplements,” Buettner told CBS News. “They don’t pursue health, which is a big disconnect in America, because we think health is something that needs to be pursued.”

The overall good health and longevity in Buettner’s Blue Zones ensues from an attitude toward life and lifestyle that has little to do with the contemporary fitness obsession, supplement consumption and diet worshipping.

Like Buettner, longevity experts believe that the right lifestyle choices could make people’s lives not only longer but fulfilling and active until the very end, which could reach 95 years, 100, and even beyond for a growing number of outliers.

The quest to reduce the body and mental damage caused by aging by decreasing biological age in relation to chronological age isn’t only about living longer but experiencing a healthier life expectancy along the way. Yale’s aging expert Morgan Levine explains that research is trying to uncover the mysteries of aging from the bottom up:

“Most scientists agree that aging likely begins at the level of molecules and then propagates upward, eventually becoming evident to the individual once it reaches the tissue/organ and then organismal level.”

True Age: Cutting-Edge Research to Help Turn Back the Clock, p. 45, Morgan Levine, 2022

Our proteins, our cells and us

Our organism’s smallest building blocks, proteins, “perform a wide range of essential jobs needed to maintain life.” Structural proteins are the foundation of critical tissues; transport proteins supply nutrients across the organism; defense proteins (antibodies) keep microscopic invaders in check; signaling proteins allow communication between cells; regulatory proteins dictate what the body needs to produce; while enzymes are the organism’s tireless workers that “make everything run and are active participants and catalysts for all that happens in the city [organism].”

With aging, proteins deteriorate, though the organism has evolved a mechanism to detect and replace proteins gone awry. Cells target and discard damaged proteins, though cells can also get damaged, especially when affected by “damaging agents” related to lifestyle, the environment (pollution, extreme weather), stress, etc.

The other age-related phenomenon occurring in our body, epigenetic aging, is showing promising advances thanks to well-funded research. Epigenetics refer to the changes that refer to how genes manifest themselves: we’re born with a particular DNA sequence but the “gene expression” of our DNA, or “the addition or subtraction of various chemical marks to the DNA structure of the proteins that DNA is wrapped around,” can evolve over time and is affected by environmental factors.

If DNA is the book of life contained in our cells, epigenetics is the recipe book for the cells to dictate which sections will be active and which ones will remain dormant:

“Each of your cells has the same ingredients—the same DNA sequence. But the epigenetic patterns are what determine which ingredients are used (…). Just like with proteins, each cell has a specific role and thus it is critical that they have the right epigenetic recipe to achieve it. Unfortunately, the epigenetic patterns in cells are impacted by aging.”

True Age: Cutting-Edge Research to Help Turn Back the Clock, p. 47, Morgan Levine, 2022

The quest for reprograming our epigenetic clock

Gerontobiologists are focused on the evidence showing that the epigenome can be reprogrammed—or “reset” when it starts showing age-related stress— to “mirror a young epigenome” by changing various factors in the environment that affects its degradation over time. Up until now, the quest to find ways to “reset” the epigenomic clock has proven elusive at best. There’s no medication (yet) to turn off or reverse cell degradation.

Buettner and Levine (who dedicates a chapter of her book True Age to The Wisdom of the Blue Zones) coincide in highlighting the value of field- and comparative research, showing, for example, the effects of lifelong healthy diets, active lifestyles and a rich social life with longevity and healthy life expectancy.

“Strategies like epigenetic reprogramming may help future humans turn back the clock and escape many of the diseases of aging. Conversely, it also may be the case that this strategy does not pan out, despite the best efforts and hours of dedication from brilliant scientists around the globe. Humans are constantly striving to push the boundaries of what is possible in science and technology, to improve ourselves beyond what we thought was possible. When it comes to optimizing health and aging, betterment doesn’t have to come via a pill bottle or through the needle’s top at the end of a syringe. While we wait for those groundbreaking discoveries, there are things each of us can do for ourselves.”

As for people who have discovered their own way to replicate the success experienced by the Blue Zones, the Washington Post recently published an article by ex-New York Times health reporter Gretchen Reynolds, introducing Richard Morgan, a 93-year-old Irish rowing enthusiast whose good health and arguably low “biological age” has made his life a subject of a case study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

“At 93, he’s as fit as a 40-year-old. His body offers lessons of aging.”, titled Reynolds. No wonder the article’s comment section went on fire, currently displaying 1365 comments, a good percentage of which are thoughtful and good-spirited (a rarity in most media forums). Contrary to contemporary trends, Richard Morgan’s success in life is related to his health and not his career achievements or wealth:

“At 93, the Irishman is a four-time world champion in indoor rowing, with the aerobic engine of a healthy 30- or 40-year-old and the body-fat percentage of a whippet.”

Meet an old chap who didn’t exercise until his 70s

What’s extraordinary about Morgan is how ordinary his life has been: a baker and battery maker with “creaky knees” who “didn’t take up regular exercise until he was in his 70s and who still trains mostly in his backyard shed.”

He started exercising regularly very late in life, but he hasn’t stopped since:

“Even though his fitness routine began later in life, he has now rowed the equivalent of almost 10 times around the globe and has won four world championships. So what, the researchers wondered, did his late-life exercise do for his aging body?”

Morgan shows what’s possible by staying active and keeping a purpose in life. And, if some succeed in staying fit and sharp deep into their golden years, there are implications “for the rest of us,” Gretchen Reynolds writes.

Once invited to the lab, Morgan surprised researchers at the University of Limerick in Ireland:

“Morgan proved to be a nonagenarian powerhouse, his sinewy 165 pounds composed of about 80 percent muscle and barely 15 percent fat, a body composition that would be considered healthy for a man decades younger.”

“During the time trial, his heart rate peaked at 153 beats per minute, well above the expected maximum heart rate for his age and among the highest peaks ever recorded for someone in their 90s, the researchers believe, signaling a very strong heart.”

As for the way his muscles are supplied with oxygen and fuel during a workout, Morgan’s cardiovascular health is comparable to those of a typical, healthy 30- or 40-year-old.

One can’t but wonder whether a chat with Richard Morgan could tell us more about longevity than expensive, scientifically unproven anti-aging regimes like Project Blueprint.