This is an audio transcript of the FT Weekend podcast episode: How to live forever

Lilah Raptopoulos
Hello FT Weekend listeners, it’s Lilah. I’m away on vacation this week so we’ve reached into the vault to bring you one of our favourite episodes. My team and I talk about this episode a lot. It’s about living forever and the ethics of radical life extension. It’s also about defying death on this outrageous family summer vacation, which feels relevant for the season. One quick note: this episode first published in November. So in the beginning, when I say last year, I mean March of 2020. Okay, enjoy the show.

Did I ever tell you about the time Ira Glass almost gave me coronavirus? It was the last day of going about our normal lives in March of 2020, and everything was starting to shut down and my office was closing, so I packed up my laptop and my keyboard and some of my notebooks into these kind of unwieldy tote bags and I slung them over my shoulder and headed home. But my last stop was this one final interview with the iconic radio host in the studios of This American Life. So Ira and I sat together in the small audio booth for an hour, and we talked about the art of storytelling, and then I left. The next day his assistant emailed me to say that I might have coronavirus because Ira might have coronavirus because he had shaken hands with someone who had coronavirus. And I remember thinking, this cannot be how I go. And that was my first brush with mortality during the pandemic and the first of many. For the next few months, mortality and I became friends. We, like, encountered each other very regularly, going to the grocery store, passing a neighbour in the hallway, taking a walk. We all encountered it, all the time. There are some people who come face to face with death early because they’ve had loved ones get sick and pass. And it happens more often to us as we get older. But these past 18 months, it’s been different. We have a new relationship with death. We’ve had to face it either as a reality or as a real possibility.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Lilah Raptopoulos
This is FT Weekend, the podcast. I’m Lilah Raptopoulous. This weekend, we’re thinking about mortality. Do we look death in the face or do we avoid it altogether? We’re going to the extreme ends. One of the world’s top climbers defies death by scaling treacherous mountains with his kids. And FT science writer Anjana Ahuja takes us through the science of living for hundreds of years.

[CLIP PLAYING]

Leo Houlding
What did you do today, Jackson?

Jackson Houlding
We climbed up the Pingora Peak.

Leo Houlding
Which one’s that? You point to it.

Jackson Houlding
That one.

Lilah Raptopoulos
That’s Leo Houlding, an outdoor adventurer and a guest writer for FT weekend, chatting with his four-year-old son, Jackson.

[CLIP PLAYING]

Leo Houlding
Was it hard?

Jackson Houlding
Umm, not very, but a bit.

Leo Houlding
Was it — were you scared at all?

Jackson Houlding
No.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Leo recently took his family on a vacation that would leave most of us fearing for our lives. That’s them climbing up Pingora Peak, a mountain described by the first Europeans who saw it as impossible. It was a 14-day trek deep in Wind River Country in the wilderness of Wyoming. He and his wife, Jessica, took their two kids scrambling up isolated technical terrain. They’re four and eight. Here’s Leo with his daughter, Freya, climbing Wolf’s Head, a 12,000-foot summit that would be hard for most adults.

[CLIP PLAYING]

Leo Houlding
What’s happening, Freya?

Freya Houlding
Ah, well, I’ve just gone up that ridge and I’m, whoo! That ridge.

Leo Houlding
Awesome. [Freya making sounds while climbing] There goes Freya, heading up that east ridge of the Wolf’s Head. Pretty epic. One of the more epic features you’re ever likely to see anywhere in the world.

Lilah Raptopoulos
On this trip, there was no cell service. They slept in tents and they brought all their food. Some of the climbing was almost vertical — roped climbing and full harnesses. Leo talks about all of this in his piece, which I’ve linked to in the show notes, but it sounded so outrageous that I wanted to talk to him about it.

Leo Houlding
I think discomfort is underrated and our lives are so comfortable these days. We’re all kind of obsessed with making everything as comfortable as possible, whereas actually a good dose of discomfort just makes you appreciate a little bit of comfort so much more.

Lilah Raptopoulos
It should be said that Leo is sort of a climbing celebrity. He’s considered one of the best in the world. You may have seen him. He’s been in documentaries like The Wildest Dream, an Imax film that documents a climb up Everest. And he’s been on TV shows like Top Gear. He’s been to Antarctica twice to climb some of the most secluded mountains in the world. So it isn’t just that he wants to torture his kids. He believes in this stuff for himself, too. So off they went into the wilderness, the whole family, and two unexpected hired hands.

Leo Houlding
The problem is to do that as a family of four, you need quite a lot of stuff. Aside from the climbing gear, you need all the camping gear, sleeping gear, cooking gear and, most of all, you need food for 14 days. Total was about 100 kilos of equipment. And that’s where the llamas came in. (Laughter)

Lilah Raptopoulos
(Laughter) Right. Okay. So in your story, you’re talking about your van getting stuck and your kids being kind of like unsure about it and you’re waiting for someone to help you out. And then this groan comes from the trailer behind you.

Leo Houlding
Not many people know that llama trekking is a thing in the western states. There are a couple of outfitters who rent you llamas unguided. They’re extremely easy animals to look after, unlike horses, which, you know, you kind of have to know stuff to handle horses.

Lilah Raptopoulos
So Leo, his wife, two kids, two llamas, 14 days worth of food and gear. They avoid a moose almost immediately as they get into the backwoods. And at this point, they’re going upwards, but not climbing just yet. On the walk to their camping spot, they meet a hiker who shows them an edible mushroom the size of a football. So they take that with them. And then when they set up camp, Leo’s wife, Jessica, casts her fishing rod out and immediately pulls back a perfect fish. Like in the movies.

At that stage, what were you thinking? Were you thinking, okay, we’re good. This is going to be an easy trip?

Leo Houlding
I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy trip because going into the backcountry is never easy. In fact, it’s very hard, but it’s simple. You know, you don’t have all the complications of modern life. It’s much more about shelter and food and looking after each other. I mean, we went into the Wind Rivers with a couple of objectives in mind, some big cliffs. But for most people that go there, they go there simply to experience the wilderness. That’s something that I would recommend to absolutely everyone.

Lilah Raptopoulos
But Leo and his family aren’t everyone. Jessica is also an experienced mountain climber, so on that third day, they take their kids out to climb some serious, bare-faced rocks.

Leo Houlding
We did this peak called Pingora, the east ledges of Pingora, which is Jackson’s first big climb where he didn’t get carried. And I mean, it is a big climb. It’s 1,000 feet of climbing, but the face is 2,000 feet high. You kind of come in from the side. So it’s, it’s incredibly spectacular.

Lilah Raptopoulos
The following day, Leo takes Freya on a climb that’s too hard for Jackson, so they go with one of his climbing buddies.

Leo Houlding
It’s definitely one of the best kind of easier climbs in North America, if not the world. It’s this knife-edge ridge, you know, no more than a metre wide with pretty much 300m drops on both sides, outrageously exposed. It’s quite complicated terrain. You have to squirm through chimneys and you have to rappel a bit and you have to go sideways. Going sideways in climbing is actually more difficult to protect than going straight up, and watching my little girl, she got scared, you know. Of course she got scared. But she faced her fear, she controlled her breathing and she absolutely loved it. She was just grinning from ear to ear the whole day.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah, I have to say, as you tell the story, my heart is beating fast. I imagine that, like a lot of it. And tell me if I’m wrong, that a lot of it is just deciding kind of not to be scared.

Leo Houlding
That’s a big part of it for sure. You know, kids, whatever you introduce them to is normal for them. So Jackson, who’s only five, he was only four this summer when when we did some big climbs out in America. He’s just picking his nose, eating his sweets, looking at the birds, wittering away like any other four-year-old would in any other situation. Freya is extremely confident. She’s grown up in the mountains so she’s way better than most adults in that terrain. In fact, we actually overtook a couple of adult teams and they were polite about it. But it must have been a little disheartening seeing a cute little eight-year-old skipping past you (laughter) on your big adventure.

Lilah Raptopoulos
All along, Leo had planned to go on an even more serious climb right at the end of their two weeks. Just him and his climbing partner. They’re gone for just 24 hours. And when they get back nursing cramps and muscle spasms, they find out that the rest of his family had to fend off a bear. Did I not mention? The story also includes a bear.

Leo Houlding
She tried the old banging pans together to scare it off. She did have a kind of bear spray and a hiking pole, but it was snuffling around for, you know, a few hours through the night. And then she realised there was still some food in the pots, in one of these stuff sacks. So she gingerly pushed it out from underneath the tent and ironically, the noise of that scared it off.

Lilah Raptopoulos
If you have kids at this point, you might be asking yourself, is this a little too dangerous? Why is this guy putting his kids at risk? Going into the backcountry with two little kids is one thing, but treacherous climbs, foraged food, bears?

Leo Houlding
I mean, there’s no question that going into the mountains, going into the backcountry is dangerous. But sometimes people think of me as a professional climber, as an adventurer, as a risk-taker. But the truth is, it’s very much about risk management. It’s about reducing the risks as much as possible. Any idiot can roll the dice a couple of times and get away with it. But when you do it professionally and you do high-risk stuff all the time, you have to do it with a very high degree of safety. But, you know, risk is an inherent part of all life, not just lives of adventure and life in the mountains. You kind of have to accept risk in life to be able to go out and make the most of it.

Lilah Raptopoulos
But Leo says that’s the point.

Leo Houlding
You know, we had a couple of pretty serious storms and there was a lot of tears and screaming, as there is in many situations with kids. But actually, sometimes it’s the, it’s the low points, it’s the negative experiences which are the most memorable and most formative. Now, when you get to the top of the mountain, it’s all smiles and high fives and sunshine. That’s great. But when you’re being pelted by hail, that’s kind of leaving bruises. And, you know, my wife and I were literally stooped over the kids protecting them from this vicious hail storm. And that’s when they learn, as we do, that, you know, you can survive, you can endure, you can push on through, don’t give up. And you just have to kind of stay on top of the situation. And then when the sun does come out, you can dry off and live to fight another day.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Lilah Raptopoulos
And from looking death in the eye to trying to delay it forever. If you had the chance to undergo a therapy that would let you live for 200 years in your prime body, would you do it? I’m talking 200 years in the body of a 35-year-old. Not just a longer life, but a longer life that’s actually good. There are scientists working hard on making that possible right now, thanks in part to funding from billionaires like Jeff Bezos. But if Bezos’s space launch was criticised for wasting money, how do we feel about his quest for eternal life? Should we consider it urgent medical research? Or is this just rich man’s folly? Do we really want a hacker biology to live to 200? Think about it.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Anjana Ahuja
You know, if a woman could reset her biology and have the biology of a, you know, perpetually of a 30-year-old, then what happens to the concept of generations? Are we all going to be living you know, when we talk about multigenerational households, are we talking about instead of the three at the moment, maybe four, five, six?

Lilah Raptopoulos
That’s Anjana Ahuja, a contributing science writer for the FT. Anjana recently wrote the cover story for Life & Arts on this radical idea. It was called, “Can we defeat death?” And it asks just that. Can we actually live for hundreds of years or forever? And yeah, that’s a real headline from a real newspaper, not a sci-fi novel, written by a real, distinguished journalist who actually has a PhD in space physics. So here’s where we are. We aren’t close yet to making humans age in reverse. But scientists have been able to de-age cells in living organisms. There are mice that go blind from ageing. And we can manipulate their genes so that they can see again. We’re close enough to a Benjamin Button situation that philosophers are now publishing books about the morality of extending the human lifespan.

So I can’t stop thinking about your piece. (Laughter) I’m just like, yeah, and I’m wondering, like, where this started for you. Where did you start reporting it?

Anjana Ahuja
Back in September, I wrote a column about Altos Labs. I found out that it was being set up, it was being funded by Jeff Bezos. And to me, it seemed like a really serious outfit in terms of the money that was going into it, the people they were recruiting. And I’ve always thought this, that actually somebody, sooner or later, is going to look at ageing as a technological problem because there is so much research into kind of interfering, trying to hack the ageing process.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Altos is a Silicon Valley start-up and Anjana says it expands on the work of Shinya Yamanaka, a Nobel Prize-winning physiologist who heads Altos’s scientific board. In 2006, Yamanaka made a discovery that some people consider even more important than the discovery of the DNA’s double helix.

News clip
The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute has today decided to award the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine 2012 to Shinya Yamanaka.

Lilah Raptopoulos
His research showed that if you take an adult mouse cell and bathed in a mixture of four proteins, you can reset that cell’s age back to its embryonic state. In 2007, he proved that it could be done with human skin cells. Let me say that again. If you dunk individual cells in this particular cocktail of proteins, you can make those cells not just stop ageing. You can make them younger. And we, of course, are made entirely of cells.

I’m curious what, like, the practical implications would be of these findings? Like, would it be just that individual parts of your body, those cells, could kind of Benjamin Button themselves backwards and yet you still would look old? Like, is there is there a way to sort of make the entire body young? That’s a very dumb question. But is there a way to make the whole body younger?

Anjana Ahuja
No, it’s not a dumb question at all. I think that’s really what these billionaires are hoping for, isn’t it, to kind of freeze themselves in some kind of eternally youthful state? I think that’s a very good question. The key is how you translate from individual cells up to whole organisms.

Lilah Raptopoulos
The name for what happens when you bathe cells in the Yamanaka Factor proteins is cellular reprogramming. Scientists try to reprogramme the cells of an entire body on mice, but when they did, the mice grew these horrible malignant tumours. Anjana put it like this. She said once you bring the cells back to their embryonic state, they lose their life plan. They don’t know what to do next, so they grow into cancers. But there are companies right now working to see if you can apply these factors incrementally to de-age cells as far as you can without them developing cancer and then to do it again.

Anjana Ahuja
I suspect people will be quicker to apply it to individual organs first, individual tissues. You know, when you think about the number of people whose organs just wear out, they need transplants. So that might be an option.

Lilah Raptopoulos
This research, it isn’t the only path to reverse ageing. A California scientist has been giving a small group of middle-aged men this cocktail of drugs that includes diabetes medication. It’s made their thymus glands, which is a key part of the immune system, younger by two-and-a-half years. David Sinclair, a Harvard geneticist and one of the biggest names in anti-ageing. He’s doing a lot to experiment on his own body, including only eating one or two meals a day to put his body into survival mode. But Yamanaka’s discovery and where it’s going, that’s what’s really changing the game for longevity research. And to tell you the truth, thinking about it really pushed me on my assumptions about scientific progress, especially progress driven by Jeff Bezos.

These stories can look a little like the stories of men with too much money in Silicon Valley (laughter) just trying to like, kind of like, still be young and cool, right? Like, kind of suspend reality and like, isn’t there something, even if it’s hard, comforting about the fact that we understand that, like, there’s a limit to our lives and we understand the arc of it and, and we all die.

Anjana Ahuja
Yeah, I mean, why don’t these billionaires put their money to solving climate change and starvation and, you know, giving us clean drinking water and that kind of thing? You know, what’s really interesting to me, I think, is when you think about what healthcare is.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Mmhmm.

Anjana Ahuja
It’s about postponing death.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.

Anjana Ahuja
You know, if you say to someone, you know, if you could not have cancer, not have heart disease, not have Alzheimer’s, not have dementia, if you could find a therapy that did that, would you take it? And I think there would be a lot of people that would say yes.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Mmhmm.

Anjana Ahuja
And what the scientists are saying, well, actually, you know, ageing is the common factor in lots of these diseases.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Mmhmm.

Anjana Ahuja
So instead of, you know, kind of waiting till Alzheimer’s or heart disease or diabetes hits, why don’t we make an upstream intervention and stop the root cause, or one root cause, which is ageing?

Lilah Raptopoulos
At the moment, though, most people seem to be sceptical of radical life extension. Anjana quotes the survey in her piece that only four per cent of Americans recently said they’d want to live past 120. Statistically, that’s pretty close to no Americans wanting to live past 120. And Anjana’s right! Part of that scepticism is that we can’t imagine our world without Alzheimer’s, cancer and heart disease because the image we have is of old age as we know it now, one that is inextricably linked to disease and frailty and loneliness. But even if we could get rid of the negative consequences of ageing, if we can have lives that aren’t just longer but good till the end, should we? Have we really thought this through? What about the climate crisis and overpopulation and burning through our limited resources? What about marriage? Can you stay married to one person for 150 years? How many careers should we have over 200 years? What about dictators who don’t ever die? Supreme Court justices? What about the House of Lords?

Anjana Ahuja
What do you do in the judicial system? You know, what does a life sentence mean, if you’re living for 150, 200 years?

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.

Anjana Ahuja
And just this idea that kind of a lot of institutions in society are set up with finite life spans in mind.

Lilah Raptopoulos
As we ended this conversation, I held two opposing feelings at once. One is, if this discovery happened today, it would be a nightmare on a macro scale, and we are not ready for it. And the other is, if I could give someone I love who’s suffering from degenerative disease a pill to stop their pain or to reverse the damage, I would in a heartbeat, no question. And to not feel that way is kind of to be against progress.

Anjana Ahuja
I think there are some really important issues that may well become more important in the decades ahead. I don’t know how close any of this is to fruition, this work about, you know, radical life extending. Could I live to 200? I don’t know. And I’m not sure that I would necessarily be able to make that decision today.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.

Anjana Ahuja
I think I would want to see what state the science was in, what state the research was in, what state I was in, and what kind of life I felt I could have, how I felt psychologically about it, what my family feel about it. You know, do they want me hanging around for a hundred years (laughter)?

Lilah Raptopoulos
Would the people around you also be hanging around for an extra 100 years?

Anjana Ahuja
Exactly. You know, we are going to get horribly bored with each other. So who knows? I mean, these are really big issues, but I hope that the piece is open to debate and we should talk about these things. They’re always good because you never know how fast science is going to progress. Yeah. And sometimes, as we’ve seen with, you know, gene editing and CRISPR, sometimes these things hit before we’ve had a chance to think about them.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Mmhmm.

Anjana Ahuja
And I think it’s always really useful for us to just take a step back and reflect on how we live, how science might change things, and on what we feel comfortable with and, and, you know, the future of our species and our society.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Anjana, you’ve given me so much to think about and probably our listeners too. Thank you so much for being on the show.

Anjana Ahuja
Oh, it’s been my pleasure, Lilah. Thank you for having me!

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Lilah Raptopoulos
And a final thought. We may be doing some of this life extension work already. We do live in a world of optimisation. We have apps to help us meditate. Our phones count our steps. We have strange little tools we attach to the back of our necks to help our posture. My watch tells me to stand up and breathe. My friends have a bed that heats up and cools down according to their optimal body temperature. There are start-ups that make vitamins specifically for your personal constitution. This isn’t just scientists in a lab testing proteins on mice. This is kind of already happening.

Tiffany Darke
So actually, what these tools, all the good tools for longevity that are coming into the market do is they help increase your health span as opposed to your life span.

Lilah Raptopoulos
That’s Tiffany Darke. She’s a regular contributor to the FT’s luxury magazine, How to Spend It. She just wrote a piece on what the really rich are doing now to optimise their health. And she’s pretty into it.

Tiffany Darke
I’m a bit of a luxury junkie. I’ve always, like, appreciated fashion. And I think that the science and the thought leadership around the luxury wellness industry has sort of increased exponentially in recent years.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Let’s be clear. Living long is a luxury. The difference between being wealthy and poor can translate to living 10 or 20 years longer or shorter. And living long well, that’s an even bigger luxury. In the UK, 20 per cent of men’s lives are spent in poor health, a number that’s increasing. And for women, that’s even higher. It’s 23 per cent. But for those that can afford it, there are a lot of new options. We’re going to take you through a few of them here. The first is called RoseBar. It’s a destination longevity programme and its marketing offers you a pretty bold promise.

Tiffany Darke
It says a year from now, you can be younger. So they are promising reversal of ageing.

Lilah Raptopoulos
The RoseBar programme is a year-long programme. First they run longevity diagnostics and your bloodwork to see if you’re on any negative health trajectories. And if you are, they put you on antidotes, which could be plasma treatments or even stem cell manipulation. From there, they give you fitness and diet advice and monthly check-ins. And the first programme launches this month at a resort in Ibiza. It’s got a hyperbaric chamber, cryotherapy and IV facilities and literal shamans. It’s like buying a souped-up life coach.

Tiffany Darke
Yes, yes, life coach but with lots of kind of doctors and clinicians and all the sort of fun toys that surround the longevity industry as well.

Lilah Raptopoulos
The cost is, base, £15,000.

Tiffany Darke
Plus the actual residential costs, plus getting there, plus the cost of the nutraceuticals, plus all the treatments.

Lilah Raptopoulos
If that’s a bit too steep for you, there’s a start-up called Thriva. It’s an app that sends you a blood sample kit. The cost starts around $30 and can go as high as almost $200 per test, depending on your add-ons.

Tiffany Darke
I’m warning you, it’s totally addictive. So you download this app on to your phone and then they send you a blood test and you do your blood test every three months. And it’s really easy at home, pinprick in the end of your finger.

Lilah Raptopoulos
They test what your doctor does at a normal check-up: your cholesterol, kidney and liver function, testosterone, vitamin levels. But they test it way more frequently and they put the results in an app, gamified. Next are the supplements. Lima sells supplements with nine scientifically backed ingredients: D3, keratin, ashwagandha, turmeric, stuff like that, but branded to look cool. You may have heard them referred to as the supermodel supplements: four pills a day, $300 a month, and you even get a luxe copper vessel to store them in.

Tiffany Darke
There’s a lot of hocus-pocus in the supplement market and, you know, a lot of good marketing, but actually there are supplements out there that do use good, patented adaptive medicines and at the dosages that your body needs to really thrive.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Which begs the question, are these just high-tech tools reminding us to do the obvious? Eat vegetables, avoid processed foods, take your vitamins, drink water, get sleep, exercise. It’s all advice that’s as old as time, but it’s a lot easier to follow when you can afford to get real-time data. And it doesn’t hurt to have a shaman reminding you on a beach in Ibiza.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Lilah Raptopoulos
That’s it for this week. You’ve been listening to FT Weekend, the podcast from the Financial Times. Please keep in touch, say hi, tell me what you like, what issues you want to hear us explore. You can email us at ftweekendpodcast@ft.com. We’re on Twitter @FTWeekendPod and I’m on Instagram and Twitter @LilahRap. I’ll put some photos of Leo’s family adventure on my feeds and, really, reach out. We love to put listeners on the show. In our show notes, as always, are links to everything mentioned. There’s also a special discount there on an FT Weekend subscription or even an FT.com trial. We’ve got the best discounts collected for you in that link, which you can also get to at ft.com/weekendpodcast. Please leave us a review and share the show on your Twitter or Instagram story or with a few friends. This really is the best way you can help support the show.

I’m Lilah Raptopoulos. Katya Kumkova and George Drake Jr are our senior producers. Lulu Smyth and Josh Gabert Doyan are our assistant producers, and Breen Turner is our sound engineer, with original music by Metaphor Music. Cheryl Brumley and Manuela Saragosa are our executive producers, and we have editorial direction from Renée Kaplan. We’ll find each other again next week.

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