Column: Looking for the fountain of youth? Don't drown in hype

Given the long list of major catastrophes in the world – melting Arctic ice, raging wars, the disappearance of early bird specials, etc. – I'm not sure why so many people want to live forever. But they do, and billions of dollars The longevity industry is booming.

Supplements, skin care products, cosmetic surgery, books, diets, podcasts, exercise routines – all this is available to anyone who wants to stop or reverse the aging process, or at least try.

David Sinclair a 54-year-old geneticist from Harvard told Fortune magazine that he is returning to his 20-year-old brain. He follows a plant-based diet with supplements designed to boost his genes for longevity. He has also managed to activate his bank account with a bestseller titled 'Lifespan: Why We Age – And Why We Don't Have To'.

California is about to be hit by an aging wave, and Steve Lopez is in on it. His column focuses on the blessings and burdens of growing older – and how some people are challenging the stigma associated with older adults.

Los Angeles tech entrepreneur and anti-aging guru Bryan Johnson goes one step further. He's 46 in real time, but trying to get there back to 18. He says death is optional, and supposedly less likely if you sign up for his $333 monthly line of supplements. Johnson takes about 100 supplements daily and performs about 20 exercises. He wears a T-shirt that says “Don't Die”, eats something he calls “nutty pudding” and sleeps with a penis monitor to count nocturnal erections.

Such a routine would actually shorten my life, because after about a week I would throw myself in front of a bus.

Fortunately, not everyone is easily misled by claims of immortality. Charles Brenner, an acclaimed authority on metabolism and disease, first contacted me a year ago and said, “I'm very bothered by bulls–claims in the science of longevity.”

The City of Hope biochemist has used science Poke holes in one life extension claim after another, including those of Sinclair and Johnson, and has become known as the longevity skeptic and the great debunker.

When we met for coffee one recent morning in the Sierra Madre, he started the conversation with a reference to the Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote about immersing yourself in magical waters that can keep you young forever. But there was no Fountain of Youth at the time, Brenner noted, and the latest claims about its existence are sure to ultimately disappoint the long lines of lemmings.

“Partly it's the media and a worship of youth, as opposed to respect for aging and wisdom,” Brenner said. “We all want to preserve our facilities and our ability to care for others, so I think that's normal and healthy. But there's a lot of fear driving the obsession with anti-aging, and I do believe there have been some false promises and ambiguities from some of the numbers at the intersection of academia and investment.

That's not to say there aren't paths to a healthier life, or that there isn't promising research into the detection, prevention, and treatment of life-shortening diseases. Brenner found in his own research that a vitamin called nicotinamide riboside is useful “in promoting resilience and repair in aging. “We are conducting randomized clinical trials to test its efficacy in a variety of age-related conditions,” including Parkinson's disease. “I don't think it will extend lifespan,” he said, “but I do think… it is something that can help people maintain their resilience.”

This brings up an important distinction: that medical breakthroughs and healthier lifestyles can help us extend our health, if not our lifespan. We all must eventually “leave the party of life,” as Brenner puts it, but there is hope that we can experience healthier and more active years while we are still standing.

Professor of Psychology Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Longevity Centersaid she knows of no evidence that we can live forever, or what kind of nightmare that might be.

“People are taking huge advantage of what could be snake oil,” she said. “But the scientific community doesn't know what the best measures are right now, and we don't want people to stop looking for them.”

According to Carstensen, we have an astronomically expensive health care system instead of a health care system, and she wouldn't bet a dime on an overhaul by the federal government. So she hopes for legitimate efforts by the private sector to achieve early detection and intervention. For example, she points out that preventing diabetes is a lot cheaper than treating it.

“Geroscience is often misrepresented as something that helps people live forever. It's not. It's about health and changing the processes that put us at risk for virtually all diseases,” said Carstensen.

Just before I met Brenner, a PR firm offered me an interview with Irina Conboy, a professor at UC Berkeley who co-founded a company called Generation Lab. I was initially skeptical because the pitch said Conboy was responsible for a number of “research breakthroughs… discovering that aging is malleable and can be quickly reversed by rejuvenating blood circulation.”

Another fountain-of-youth proposal?

But by the same argument, Generation Lab's process involves peer-reviewed science and uses a series of cheek swabs “to measure clinically relevant biological 'red flags' that report biological age and disease risk.” Clients would receive an assessment of the condition of cardiac, respiratory, urinary and other body systems, and through a link with a physician, interventions could be prescribed to “address conditions that rob people of their quality of life and independence as they age – affecting human health.”

Conboy told it Fortune she tried to lead people away “from the dangers of pseudo-lifespan.” She said that “aging is not something that is set in stone, like a train running down the tracks,” and that “the overarching goal is to delay or perhaps even prevent disease.”

Can Generation Lab deliver on its promises? That remains to be seen, but there are already more than a thousand people on a waiting list for a cheek swab, which costs $400. And that raises an issue of medical ethics.

We already have a crisis of inequality when it comes to access to diagnostics and quality healthcare. As the world's unprecedented age wave accelerates and the percentage of older people grows, are we creating new barriers between those who can and cannot afford the latest tests and interventions?

“We're trying to make this as accessible as possible” and make Generation Lab cheaper after testing begins in March, said CEO Alina Rui Su, who told me one goal is to eventually bring the price of entry down.

I told Conboy that the thought of having my cheek swabbed and waiting for the results, which could be alarming, could keep me awake at night. And what's wrong with having old-fashioned, regular checkups with my doctor instead?

Those checks won't necessarily identify early signs of problems, she said, but the Generation Lab's diagnosis will.

“Would you like to know that in three years, or in five years, you could develop a serious form of cancer, and if you know that, you can” start interventions? she asked.

Good question. I think I would, but I think I'll wait until the price drops.

Getting more out of our limited time is certainly a worthy endeavor. But at the risk of becoming a party pooper, let's remember that we're all going to die. Despite the claims of some, this is the natural order. And there is an aspect of the boom in life expectancies that casts aging and aging as a miserable disease to be avoided at all costs. If that's your view, the stress alone could kill you, no matter how many pills you take.

My free prescription for amateur geroscience is don't buy snake oil, skip the penis monitors, eat right and sleep well, get some exercise, and do things that give you a sense of purpose and pleasure.

If you get through it today, try again tomorrow.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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