Monday, 22 April, 2024
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The man on a quest to live forever

America’s Bryan Johnson (46) is working on “the most significant revolution in the history of homo sapiens” in pursuit of a singular goal: to not die.

The centimillionaire tech entrepreneur has spent most of the past three years and more than $4m developing a life-extension system called Blueprint, in which he outsources every decision involving his body to a team of doctors who use data to develop a strict health regimen to reduce his “biological age”.

This includes downing 111 pills daily, wearing a baseball cap that shoots red light into his scalp, collecting his own stool samples, and sleeping with a tiny jet pack attached to his penis to monitor his night-time erections.

Johnson thinks of any act that accelerates ageing – like eating cale, or getting less than eight hours of sleep – as an “act of violence”, writes Charlotte Alter for TIME, yet his quest is not just about staying rested or maintaining muscle tone.

It’s about turning his whole body over to an anti-ageing algorithm. He believes death is optional. He plans never to do it.

The goal is to get his 46-year-old organs to look and act like 18-year-old organs.

Johnson says the data compiled by his doctors suggests Blueprint has so far given him the bones of a 30-year-old, and the heart of a 37-year-old.

He describes his intense diet and exercise regime as falling somewhere between the Italian Renaissance and the invention of calculus in the pantheon of human achievement.

I spent three days observing Johnson to learn what a life run by an algorithm would look like, and whether the “next evolution of being human” would have any real humanity at all.

Spartan living

Kate Tolo (27), originally from Australia, is Johnson’s chief marketing officer and most loyal disciple. Two months ago, she became the first person, aside from Johnson, to commit to Blueprint, making her the first test of how Blueprint works on a female body.

She’s known as “Blueprint XX.”

Johnson walks in, wearing a T-shirt and tiny white shorts. He has the body of an 18-year-old and the face of someone who had spent millions attempting to look like an 18-year-old. His skin is pale and glowing, partly because of multiple laser treatments and partly because he had no hair on his entire body.

The hair on his head is “not dyed,” Johnson says, but he does use a “grey-hair-reversal concoction” which includes “a herbal extract” that colours the hair.

The next day, he walks me through his morning routine. He woke up at 4.53am but delayed most of his routine until I arrive at 7am to observe him. His bedroom has almost nothing in it: no photos, books, TV, no phone charger, or chair with piled-up clothes, no mirror.

The only two objects in the room besides his bed, are a laser face-shield he uses for collagen growth and wrinkle reduction, and the device he wears on his penis while he sleeps to measure his night-time erections.

“I have, on average, two hours and 12 minutes each night of erection of a certain quality,” he says. “To be age 18, it would be three hours and 30 minutes.” Night-time erections, he says, are “a biological age marker for your sexual function”, which also has implications for cardiovascular fitness.

When Johnson wakes up and removes the erection tracker, he weighs himself on a scale that uses “electrical impedance” to measure his weight, body-mass index, hydration level, body fat, and “pulse wave velocity”, which he explained but I didn’t quite grasp.

“I’m in the top 1% of ideal muscle fat,” he says.

Then he turns on his light-therapy lamp (which mimics sun exposure) for two to three minutes to reset his circadian rhythm. He takes his inner-ear temperature to monitor changes in his body, and starts off with two pills of ferritin to boost his iron, along with some vitamin C.

He washes his face, uses a cream to prevent wrinkles, and puts on a laser light mask for five minutes, with red and blue lights designed to stimulate collagen growth and control blemishes.

By this time, it’s about 6am, and Johnson walks downstairs to start his day.

The Blueprint supplement regimen is on the kitchen counter. He begins with eye drops for his pre-cataracts, then uses a little vibrating device against the side of his nose to stimulate a nerve that apparently helps his eyes create tears.

Johnson makes his Green Giant, then starts taking more pills in between sips of dark-green sludge.

He does special exercises to increase his grip strength, then heads to his home gym for an hour-long routine. His daily workout isn’t much more advanced than something you’d see from an enthusiastic guy at the gym: a series of weights, planks and stretches.

He does this for seven days a week.

Occasionally, he’ll wear a plastic mask to measure his VO2 max, or the maximum rate of oxygen consumption during physical exercise. His VO2 Max is in the top 1.5% of 18-year-olds, he says.

Afterwards he eats steamed vegetables and lentils that have been blended until they resemble a mush the colour of a sea lion.

He and Tolo don’t name their meals “breakfast,” “lunch,” or “dinner.” They call them “first meal,” “second meal,” and so on.

This is first meal. He offers me some “nutty pudding”, made from macadamia-nut milk, ground macadamia and walnuts, chia seed, flaxseed, Brazil nuts, sunflower lecithin, Ceylon cinnamon and pomegranate juice. It’s the colour of a pencil eraser, and tastes dusty, but it’s not too different from a vegan yoghurt, if you like that sort of thing.

Johnson insists all this is about something much bigger than getting ripped and maintaining a youthful glow. “Most people assume death is inevitable. We're just basically trying to prolong the time we have before we die,” he says.

Until now, he adds, “I don't think there's been any time in history where homo sapiens could say with that death may not be inevitable.”

Experts disagree. “Death is not optional; it’s written into our genes,” says Dr Pinchas Cohen, dean of the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California.

Cohen says living longer in the future is certainly possible: over the course of the 20th century, human life expectancy rose from around 50 to more than 80. But living forever is not.

“There’s absolutely no evidence that it’s possible,” Cohen says, “and absolutely no technology right that even suggests we’re heading that way.”

“If you want immortality, you should go to a church,” adds Dr Eric Verdin, CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Ageing. “If I believed even a little bit that it would be possible, I would be excited. It’s a pipe dream.”

Verdin isn’t just sceptical of Johnson’s claims that he can achieve immortality; he’s sceptical of his claims of age-reversal altogether.

“He professes to make everything transparent, but as a scientist it’s really impossible to understand the tools he’s using to assess his age,” Verdin says.

It’s not just that medical professionals are sceptical of Blueprint’s ability to achieve immortality. They’re not even convinced Johnson’s routine is particularly healthy.

Dr Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Ageing Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, met Johnson at the annual retreat for the Academy for Health & Lifespan Research.

Barzilai recalls that when Johnson arrival, doctors there were concerned. “He looked sick, pale. I don’t know what he did with his face,” Barzilai says, adding that he was alarmed by Johnson’s lack of fat, which plays an important role in the body. “All these MDs, we all agreed he didn’t look great.”

Barzilai also has reservations about Johnson taking so many supplements and treatments at once, warning that all of the different pills could interact with one another in dangerous ways, and that doctors normally research the effects of one drug at a time, rather than the cumulative effects of more than 100 pills at once.

Blueprint, he adds, is “not an experiment we accept as scientists or doctors”.

Johnson did not make his own doctors available for an interview, nor provide details about his team. But he intends to bring Blueprint to the masses.

I ask Johnson, what if you do live forever? That means you’d outlive everybody you’d ever known on the planet. You’d watch your children and grandchildren and all your friends die before you.

What would that be like? Is a life without the people you love worth living?

“At every stage in life, we move through these transition states of relationships and new experiences,” he says. “And at every stage, you could pose that question, because the circumstances are going to change. Is it worth it to carry on?”

His journey…

Johnson grew up in a small Mormon community in Utah. His grandfather owned a farm, and Johnson and his four siblings spent most of their time helping to harvest alfalfa and corn.

He served his Mormon mission in Ecuador, then went to Brigham Young University, followed by business school at the University of Chicago. He got married, had three children, and in 2007 founded Braintree, a payment-processing company.

Braintree acquired Venmo five years later. In 2013, the combined entity was sold to PayPal for roughly $800m. Johnson walked away with more than $300m.

Despite his financial success, Johnson recalls this as a painful time. He fell into a deep depression in 2004 and stayed there for 10 years. He was overwhelmed by building his company while raising three children.

Medication and therapy didn’t help. He was overweight and miserable, he says.

Within a year of selling his company, he ended his marriage and left the church. In 2014, he ploughed $100m into the creation of the OS Fund, which invests in companies working in the “programmable physical world” – his term for companies that use AI and machine learning to develop new technologies for therapeutics, diagnostics, and synthetic biology.

In 2016, he founded Kernel, a neurotechnology company that uses a specially designed helmet to measure brain activity. Its goal is to detect cognitive impairment at the earliest stages; for now, the company is looking for biomarkers for psychiatric conditions.

It can also be used – as a fun side hobby – to measure the age of his brain.

Slowly does it

One day we drive to the company’s offices. Even though his mission is to “not die”, he still drives himself around LA in an electric Audi. (Extremely slowly.)

Before he pulls out of his driveway, he utters his pre-driving mantra: “Driving is the most dangerous thing we do.” He’s aware his singular focus on living forever might make an accidental death somewhat embarrassing.

“What would be more beautiful irony than me getting hit by a bus and dying?” he says.

Tolo and Johnson think of themselves as a sort of futuristic Adam and Eve.

Johnson is currently single. His older son is serving a mission for the Mormon church, and his daughter (13) lives with her mother.

So Johnson spends much of his time with his 18-year-old son, who commits to the Blueprint diet, rest and exercise routines, but skips the anti-ageing therapies.

He briefly donated blood plasma to Johnson to test whether it had a measurable impact on his father’s ageing, but stopped once Johnson decided it didn’t work.

As I watched Johnson drink his immortality gruel and explain his religious commitment to bedtime, I was wondering: What did he want? Did he miss eating birthday cake? Staying up late dancing? Baseball games that stretch into long nights filled with hot dogs and beer? Johnson wanted an eternal life.

But what is life without wanting?

 

TIME article – The man who thinks he can live forever (Open access)

 

See more from MedicalBrief archives:

 

Minimum of five hours’ sleep for good health and longevity – UK study

 

How you sleep could be ‘strongest predictor’ of when you will die – US study

 

Time to rethink what we call ‘old age’

 

Clinical trial with ‘young blood’ to slow ageing is labelled a ‘scam’

 

Dietary supplement does not slow ageing

 

 

 

 

 

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