On a velvety March evening in Mandeville Canyon, high above the rest of Los Angeles, Norman Lear’s living room was jammed with powerful people eager to learn the secrets of longevity. When the symposium’s first speaker asked how many people there wanted to live to two hundred, if they could remain healthy, almost every hand went up. Understandably, then, the Moroccan phyllo chicken puffs weren’t going fast. The venture capitalists were keeping slim to maintain their imposing vitality, the scientists were keeping slim because they’d read—and in some cases done—the research on caloric restriction, and the Hollywood stars were keeping slim because of course.
When Liz Blackburn, who won a Nobel Prize for her work in genetics, took questions, Goldie Hawn, regal on a comfy sofa, purred, “I have a question about the mitochondria. I’ve been told about a molecule called glutathione that helps the health of the cell?” Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that protects cells and their mitochondria, which provide energy; some in Hollywood call it “the God molecule.” But taken in excess it can muffle a number of bodily repair mechanisms, leading to liver and kidney problems or even the rapid and potentially fatal sloughing of your skin. Blackburn gently suggested that a varied, healthy diet was best, and that no single molecule was the answer to the puzzle of aging.
Yet the premise of the evening was that answers, and maybe even an encompassing solution, were just around the corner. The party was the kickoff event for the National Academy of Medicine’s Grand Challenge in Healthy Longevity, which will award at least twenty-five million dollars for breakthroughs in the field. Victor Dzau, the academy’s president, stood to acknowledge several of the scientists in the room. He praised their work with enzymes that help regulate aging; with teasing out genes that control life span in various dog breeds; and with a technique by which an old mouse is surgically connected to a young mouse, shares its blood, and within weeks becomes younger.
Joon Yun, a doctor who runs a health-care hedge fund, announced that he and his wife had given the first two million dollars toward funding the challenge. “I have the idea that aging is plastic, that it’s encoded,” he said. “If something is encoded, you can crack the code.” To growing applause, he went on, “If you can crack the code, you can hack the code!” It’s a big ask: more than a hundred and fifty thousand people die every day, the majority of aging-related diseases. Yet Yun believes, he told me, that if we hack the code correctly, “thermodynamically, there should be no reason we can’t defer entropy indefinitely. We can end aging forever.”
Nicole Shanahan, the founder of a patent-management business, announced that her company would oversee longevity-related patents that Yun had pledged to the cause. “I’m here with my darling, Sergey,” she said, referring to her boyfriend, Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google. “And he called me yesterday and said, ‘I’m reading this book, “Homo Deus,” and it says on page twenty-eight that I’m going to die.’ I said, ‘It says you, personally?’ He said, ‘Yes!’ ” (In the book, the author, Yuval Noah Harari, discusses Google’s anti-aging research, and writes that the company “probably won’t solve death in time to make Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin immortal.”) Brin, sitting a few feet away, gave the crowd a briskly ambiguous nod: Yes, I was singled out for death; no, I’m not actually planning to die.
After Moby put in a plug for being vegan, Dzau called on Martine Rothblatt, the founder of a biotech firm called United Therapeutics, which intends to grow new organs from people’s DNA. “Clearly, it is possible, through technology, to make death optional,” Rothblatt said. (She has already commissioned a backup version of her wife, Bina—a “mindclone” robot named Bina48.) Aging has long lacked the kind of vocal constituency that raised awareness of H.I.V. and breast cancer; as a species, we stink at mobilizing against a deferred collective calamity (see: climate change). The old wax fatalistic, and the young don’t really believe they’ll grow old. But Rothblatt suggested that the evening marked an inflection point. Turning to Dzau, she declared, “It’s enormously gratifying to have the epitome of the establishment, the head of the National Academy of Medicine, say, ‘We, too, choose to make death optional!’ ” The gathering blazed with the conviction that such events can spark: the belief that those inside the room can determine the fate of all those outside the room.
In the back, Andy Conrad picked up a mike to challenge the emphasis on extending maximum life span, which is currently around a hundred and fifteen. Conrad is the C.E.O. of Verily, a life-sciences firm owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Like most of the scientists in the room, he aims simply to help people enjoy a few more “quality-adjusted life years.” He asked, “Isn’t longevity a misnomer? Isn’t it ‘living longer well’? Or ‘healthspan’?” The biologists nodded with relief.