Mountain View, Calif.
Aubrey de Grey, 51, is the man who insists that within a few decades technology will enable us human beings to beat death and live forever. Actually, he’s not the only one to make these assertions—that death is a problem to be solved, not a fate to be endured—but he is the only one I know of to give eternal life an exciting, just-around-the-corner timeline. “Someone is alive right now who is going to live to be 1,000 years old,” he told me when I interviewed him last fall at the SENS (for “Strategically Engineered Negligible Senescence”) Research Foundation headquarters, a well-worn 3,000-square-foot cement building in the Silicon Valley flatlands where de Grey holds the title of chief science officer. He has made this prophecy to a number of reporters—and this is what makes de Grey the most famous of a growing number of people who have staked their lifestyles and futures on the prospect of never dying. He is constantly interviewed by the press, has written a 2007 book, Ending Aging, and has given at least two of the TED talks that are a genius-certification ritual for public intellectuals these days.
The British-born de Grey, with a doctorate in biology from Cambridge, is also the single most colorful figure in the living-forever movement, where colorful figures generously abound. “I look as though I’m in my 30s,” he informed me after we settled, first into a cluttered conference room dominated by an enormous scribbled-over whiteboard, and then into a low-ceilinged lounge whose mélange of hard-bounce chairs and sofas looks as though it was scrounged from sidewalk discards. And maybe he does look that young, but it’s hard to tell, because his waist-length, waterfall-style beard—a de Grey trademark—gives him the look of an extremely spry Methuselah, who, according to the Bible, made it only to 969 years. De Grey is actually of the phenotype Ageless British Eccentric: English Rose cheeks, piercing blue eyes, and someone-please-make-him-a-sandwich slenderness; his tomato-red shirt and gray slacks hang from angular shoulders and legs. Bony frames that verge on gauntness are a hallmark of the living-forever movement, most of whose members hew to severe dietary restrictions in order to prolong their lives while they wait for science to catch up with death. De Grey, by contrast, claims to eat whatever he likes and also to drink massive quantities of carb-loaded English ale, working it all off by punting on the River Cam in the four months a year he spends doing research back at Cambridge. (During the rest of the year he lives in Los Gatos, a picturesque Victorian town in the Santa Cruz Mountains 14 miles southeast of Mountain View.)
De Grey subscribes to the reigning theory of the live-forever movement: that aging, the process by which living things ultimately wear themselves out and die, isn’t an inevitable part of the human condition. Instead, aging is just another disease, not really different in kind from any of the other serious ailments, such as heart failure or cancer, that kill us. And as with other diseases, de Grey believes that aging has a cure or series of cures that scientists will eventually discover. “Aging is a side effect of being alive,” he said during our interview. “The human body is exactly the same as a car or an airplane. It’s a machine, and any machine, if you run it, will effect changes on itself that require repairs. Living systems have a great deal of capacity for self-repair, but over time some of those changes only accumulate very slowly, so we don’t notice them until we are very old.”
De Grey believes that the current approach of geriatric medicine to the systemic breakdowns that aging entails is “pitiful.” “Cardiovascular disease is the number-one killer in the West today, and we know that it’s caused by fatty deposits in the major arteries. So we try stents or manipulating cholesterol levels with Lipitor. But we know now that the problem isn’t so much cholesterol as oxidized cholesterol [small, dense, chemically-modified particles that the aging human body isn’t able to deal with via its own natural enzymes]. Oxidized cholesterol isn’t properly processed, that is, carried away by the enzymes, so it poisons the arteries.”