In case you missed the latest headlines, blood transfusions from his 17-year-old son didn’t do much. But that hasn’t deterred tech tycoon Bryan Johnson from his multimillion-dollar mission to turn back the hands of time and prove he is the future of aging.
“If you imagine how we’re going to live in 20 years from now, that’s what I’m doing today.”
Johnson, 46, calls himself a professional rejuvenation athlete, and he is leading a race against time — a journey he shares online with videos of himself undergoing gruelling physical workouts, preparing a diet of mostly mushed-up grains and vegetables, and downing dozens of supplements daily.
In June, he granted an interview to CBC’s The National at his sprawling modernist home in Venice Beach, Calif., which includes a state-of-the-art clinic equipped with sophisticated instruments that identify biomarkers of physiological aging. It’s all part of his one-man experiment he’s taken part in for the last two years, backed by a team of experts he’s hired, to create a scientifically sound protocol for healthy longevity.
Johnson says his job is to strictly follow it. While his daily life requires enormous self-discipline and he acknowledges it is restrictive, he says he doesn’t plan to stop any time soon because he’s never felt better.
He wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and goes to bed at 8:30 p.m. He eats a vegan-based diet, consumes less than 2,000 calories a day and stops eating by noon. He admits he’s hungry most of the time but powers through customized daily exercise routines and undergoes painful treatments to improve the condition of his skin.
Like the teenage blood transfusions that he hoped would enhance his cognitive health but proved to have no real benefit, examining what’s working and what’s not is why Johnson calls himself “the most measured person in human history.”
He undergoes regular scans, ultrasounds and blood tests. The data is critical, he says, to prove a hypothesis that age is just a number — or in his case right now, a bunch of them.
“My heart is 37, my diaphragm is 18, my left ear is 64. So some of my biological ages are in great shape, some are not,” he said, “but if you’re looking at my DNA methylation patterns, which you cannot see with the naked eye, that’s telling you that I’m aging slower than the average 10-year-old.”
Avoiding disease, not just treating it
It may sound fantastical, definitely futuristic, but there could be a bigger lesson for those who don’t have the time or resources to follow Johnson’s plan, even if they wanted to.
It turns out that relying on data to reverse the aging process is critical to a longer and healthier life, says renowned biologist Dr. Leroy “Lee” Hood, a best-selling author and biotech entrepreneur who is known for inventing revolutionary biological instruments that paved the way for the Human Genome Project.
He doesn’t believe that the point of living longer is to prove you can, and says old age is the biggest risk factor for chronic disease — but only if you let it.
Hood is almost 85 years old but says his biological age is 70, thanks in part to his daily exercise routine that includes 200 pushups, 100 sit ups, and stretching and balancing exercises. He also practises intermittent fasting and takes several supplements.
He says all of those efforts are based on his own personalized genetic profile and mean he’s been able to ward off illness.
“You know, I’m delighted,” he said after completing a round of rapid pushups. “I have a big project ahead of me that’s gonna take 15 to 20 years, so I’m going to be around to see the end of it.”
That big project is taking what he’s doing to the masses, and Hood says it would be nothing short of a revolutionary shift away from the treatment of disease to the avoidance of it altogether.
He believes that data-driven personalized approach to wellness could delay the disease process for years or even decades and has the potential to banish illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes.
Hood says he envisions a health system that keeps people well until they die naturally at a very old age — and it’s based on research that he says proves it’s possible.
Data-driven approach to aging
Over the past five years, Hood and his team have been conducting a series of data-driven experiments based on the genome sequence, gut microbiome, blood plasma proteins and lifestyle information of up to 5,000 people. The goal is to understand how these data points connect to determine an individual’s predisposition to disease and identify early signals — or what Hood calls “transitions” to disease — and act before illness progresses.
Hood says a pilot study based on the data of 108 people found that by using genetic and other high-tech diagnostics, his team helped people boost their health and minimize their risk of future disease by making data-driven, personalized adjustments to diets and other lifestyle factors.
Now he wants to collect data on one million people over a decade. He’s talking to members of the U.S. Congress and tech giants to make that happen because he says artificial intelligence or machine learning will be essential to sift through the massive amounts of data to identify hundreds of thousands more signals of early disease.
“We’re utterly confident that for most chronic diseases, we will be able to find those signals,” Hood said, paving the way to preventative personalized treatment.
“It will give each of us the ability for our health span — the number of years we live healthy — to equal our lifespan, which is the number of years we live. And the second thing it’ll do, it gives most of us the guarantee we’ll live with health spans out into our 90s or even in the 100s.”
The key to Hood’s vision is big data, but there are concerns about false signals, privacy breaches and possible discrimination by employers and insurance companies — all issues he says would require rigorous oversight.
Gathering health data that truly represents the diversity of a population is a challenge, and some aging experts question whether data-driven health will truly democratize as well as revolutionize health care.
A deep dive into aging Canadians
Parminder Raina is running the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA), one of the world’s most comprehensive studies on aging, at McMaster University In Hamilton.
The study, which is tracking 50,000 Canadians for at least 20 years, is exploring why some people age in a healthy way, even if they are genetically predisposed to certain diseases. Raina is particularly interested in how social factors impact a person’s health span — the part of a person’s life during which they are generally in good health.
“The question is why that happens,” he said. “Is there a specific link between what happens biologically and how that is triggered by our environmental exposures and how that determines the trajectory of aging?”
But Raina says the data pool in the study is not as representative as researchers would like because socioeconomic barriers make it difficult to recruit racialized communities. As in most health research studies, more than 80 per cent of the participants in the CLSA are of northern European descent.
Given the difficulty the study is facing recruiting more diverse participants, Raina says he worries that larger data-driven health care designed to keep people younger and healthier could also be inherently biased and exclusionary because it relies on people participating.
“I think that’s a very important question that we have to address as a society,” he said. “We have Indigenous populations in this country on whom we don’t have a lot of data. Our immigration patterns are changing rapidly, and if those people don’t participate in research, if we don’t have good data on those individuals, our AI models are not going to be able to address the needs of those populations.
“So it’s important when we think about AI models, we also think about the diversity that data should have in order to design models that allow us to have precision medicine for all populations, not just for a few.”
Back in California, Bryan Johnson doesn’t put a time limit on his future. He believes his own data is proving — barring an unforeseen accident — that he will be around for a very long time. And while he readily acknowledges he is not an everyman, he says everyone can look at his data and take something from it.
“I know what I’m doing is extreme and it’s not accessible for most people. What I hope to achieve is with my data to be the evidence to say it’s worth it.”
As for whether he wants to live forever, Johnson said, “I want to have the option everyday to live tomorrow.”