Are we learning to live better, or just longer? 

April 3, 2023


We’re learning a lot about how to live longer. But what can longevity science teach us about how to live better?

Bryan Johnson, a 45-year-old software entrepreneur, captured the public’s attention and imagination with an extreme anti-aging regimen detailed in depth by Bloomberg last month. With a team of 30 doctors and in-home medical facilities, a budget somewhere north of $2 million a year, and an unforgiving and occasionally invasive nutrition, exercise, and medical testing routine, Johnson has offered himself up as a guinea pig for longevity science with the goal of reversing the aging process on every one of his organs. 

While it’s remarkable that Johnson has dedicated so much of his time and resources to advancing the science of longevity, we can only hope that he’s able to find joy and healing in this new approach to living.

In the broader conversation about health and aging, there’s a big difference between the idea of reversing aging completely and slowing the processes that contribute to unhealthy aging. The reality is that nearly half of all Americans live with at least one chronic illness. Our life expectancy has declined more than that of people in countries we’d consider our peers. And the impact of this decline is even starker for Black Americans, with huge disparities in life expectancy across different racial and ethnic groups in America reflecting a complex web of interconnected inequities in healthcare, housing, education, and other environmental factors.   

Healthspan vs Lifespan

Despite this, three out of four Americans hope to live to 100, according to a Stanford Center on Longevity poll. But when we obsess over lifespan, we often overlook our healthspan. Sadly, research suggests that most of us will spend two of those 10 decades unhealthy — in and out of the hospital, facing chronic health conditions and the costs associated with them. We know that age is one of the biggest risk factors for disease in developed countries. But doctors believe that an individual’s genetics account for 30-50% of the risk of most diseases, with non-genetic factors like lifestyle, living circumstances, and environment making up the rest. Although genes play a role in disease development, they are just one part of a complex web, and it is difficult to quantify the degree to which interventions like Johnson’s will make an impact. 

There’s also the fact that Johnson’s lifestyle takes a huge toll — financially, physically and psychologically — that makes it simply not feasible for the average person. Because these interventions are not possible at scale, it’s difficult to say how his doctors’ findings can apply for society at large. And as much as we would like to be able to control our fate, it’s just not possible. Many of us carry genes that can undo all of our best intentions. 

With that said, it’s always better to be healthy in body and mind when facing any kind of serious illness, and there’s a lot we can learn from Johnson’s experience. With breakthroughs in longevity research, we could be living much longer lives by 2050, and some hope to eventually even reach immortality. But no matter how long Johnson lives — and we hope it’s a very long time — like all of us, he will one day face the end of his life. While we try to wrap our heads around what an increased lifespan might mean, we need to do our best to ensure those extra years are healthful, and plan for the best possible ending no matter when that time comes.

Resisting Stereotypes

A big part of that work is understanding the role that our culture plays in healthy aging. Dr. Becca Levy, a psychologist at the Yale School of Public Health, has been studying the way ageist stereotypes influence health for over 30 years, and has found that negative cultural and personal perceptions of aging can take up to eight years off our lifespan. The good news is that Dr. Levy’s research also shows that perceptions can change: older adults with positive perceptions of their own competence and value tend to perform better on tests focused on cognitive and physical health and well-being than their peers.

Other cultural and environmental factors that influence healthspan and lifespan can also change.The Brookings Institution and the NAACP recently released The Black Progress Index, which examines differences in life expectancy among Black populations in different locations in the U.S. to reveal places where Black people are thriving. In these places, higher life expectancy is linked to strong communities where civil rights groups, organizers and politicians are working to dismantle structural inequities that take years off a person’s life — reflecting the collective power that we hold to determine our own healthspan and lifespan. 

The future of longevity science isn’t just about radical experiments like Johnson’s.  It’s about reinvigorating our cultural and clinical imagination when it comes to the end of life, with the goal of ensuring that each of us can leave this world with the dignity, love, and joy that we all deserve. In the end, the most important thing we can learn from Johnson’s anti-aging regimen won’t be about how to live longer — it’ll be about how to live better. 

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