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Meet the Elon Musk of Longevity - Aubrey de Grey

Who is he?

Aubrey de Grey is one of the most interesting thought leaders in longevity science today (and he certainly looks the part!).  He grew up in London, has a BA in Computer Science and a PhD in Biology from Cambridge University.  He currently serves as the Chief Science Officer af the SENS Research Foundation which he himself founded to spearhead longevity research. 

In 2007 de Grey co-authored the book Ending Aging where he first laid out his “maintenance” framework to aging.  WIth that framework De Grey popularized a new approach to longevity science and has inspired the launch of dozens of biotech companies developing all manner of healthspan solutions. 

To get a quick sense of his vision and the framework of longevity that triggered this wave of innovation in the field, this short TEDx presentation is a must-watch. It also makes clear why de Grey is on the same plane as Elon Musk when it comes to tackling big problems.

Having impact

Since he was 8 or 9 years old, de Grey knew that he wanted to make a difference in the world. Early in his career, his ambition attracted him to the field of artificial intelligence and he spent several years doing advanced research in that topic. 

In his late 20s, however, he realized that hardly anyone was working on solving what he now describes as “the most important problem for humanity.” He is referring to the phenomenon of aging, which inevitably ends in death.  For de Gray “dying is not a good thing.” 

Change of careers

This led him to become a biologist and to focus on solving the underlying processes that lead to aging. He gives some insight on the simple framework he used to make this decision: 

“There are 2 things that determine how big a difference you are going to make in the world: (1) how important is the problem you are trying to solve; and (2) how easy it is to solve.”

If something is important but easy, it probably has already been done. Or at least you can be sure that many people are trying to solve it. On the flip side, if something is important but impossible—like perpetual motion—working on it will be futile.

The challenge is that it is hard to tell when a hard problem is solvable or not. And most people get it wrong. Most people tend to shy away from tackling hard things because they convince themselves that hard means impossible,“and we need to change that.” 

Of all the hard problems that he considered, longevity struck him as the most compelling. Over 100,000 people a day die of age-related diseases. And one thing we can probably all agree on is that pretty much everyone wants to be healthy for as long as possible. So why not try to solve the problem of extending a healthy lifespan?

Of all the hard problems that he considered, longevity struck him as the most compelling. Over 100,000 people a day die of age-related diseases. And one thing we can probably all agree on is that pretty much everyone wants to be healthy for as long as possible. So why not try to solve the problem of extending a healthy lifespan?

Demystifying the problem of aging

In trying to assess if the conditions of aging were solvable, de Grey focused on one key question: 

“Why is it that most infectious diseases (eg. tuberculosis, diphtheria), have been prevented now, but age-related diseases (eg. cardiovascular disease, cancer, alzheimer's) remain unsolved? What is so different about age-related diseases?”

 

After pondering on this for a while, he realized that the problem starts with how aging has traditionally been defined. For the longest time, aging was seen as part of the natural and universal life cycle of any living organism. 

But for de Grey, a better way to think about aging is to see it not as a biological process, but as a physical one. Think of aging as the normal wear and tear of the body over time. The same way that a car requires maintenance over time to continue functioning optimally, so does the body. 

And so, de Grey reframed the definition of aging to focus on this maintenance. Thinking back on his framework to choose a big problem to tackle: seeing aging from this different perspective made it look solvable. “If you can understand the underlying cellular damage that happens over time, you can start thinking of corrective maintenance strategies.”

What is aging. Definition

Why current approaches aren’t working

By approaching the aging problem this way, de Grey arrived at a realization that—in hindsight—seems rather obvious. 

He found that the reason progress against age-related diseases (such as cardiovascular

disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s) has been so slow, is because they are misclassified as chronic diseases. Instead, they should be understood as resulting from a lack of maintenance. Cellular physical damage over time is the root cause.

So by changing the way we look at aging from this...

Popula view of aging diseases

to this...

Aging diseases. Correct view.

de Grey unlocked a whole new set of possibilities. He concluded that the chronic, progressive diseases of old age are not really diseases at all. They are not things that can be cured. They are an integral part of aging.

This, in turn, made him realize that geriatric medicine—the approach we take to keep people healthy as they age—is never going to work. The current approach is simply to tackle the consequences of damage, the symptoms of diseases, but not to deal with the root cause: the cumulative damage our cells experience over time.

De Grey also points out the weaknesses of gerontology in addressing aging. Gerontologists study the mechanisms of aging in other species and then try to translate solutions for humans. The main problem of this approach: the metabolic processes at the root of these mechanisms are too complicated and interconnected to be easily unraveled and understood. There is just too much we don’t about how the body works.

A new framework: The “Seven Hallmarks of Aging”

Taking this new, maintenance-centric approach to aging, de Grey proceeded to make an exhaustive list of all the different types of cellular damage that lead to aging. This resulted in identifying the “ hallmarks” of aging: 7 discrete categories of cellular damage that, if addressed, can slow down aging. With the processes identified, the path to viable maintenance solutions has been opened up.

7 hallmarks of aging and potential solutions

By redefining the problem in this way, de Grey has had a tremendous impact on how longevity scientists now think about aging. By showing people that this is an addressable problem, de Grey has attracted and inspired many great minds to apply their energies toward developing solutions to cellular aging.

While a lot of work remains to be done, it is fair to say that his work has triggered a movement in this scientific field. And as a result, many healthy aging solutions will be coming to market in the next few years. 

What you can do

We all need to reframe the way we think about aging. Getting sick is simply accepted as a natural part of getting old. But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

If you understand the 7 hallmarks of aging, you will also think differently about how you are aging and what lies at the root of it. The great news is that, while we wait for pharmaceutical solutions to come to market, there are many simple steps you can take today to extend your healthy lifespan. 

We cover many of them in our weekly newsletter and here on the site, and generally revolve around 5 key factors: Nutrition, Exercise, Sleep, Mental Wellness, and Hacks.

Disclosure: This article contains an Amazon Affiliates link.

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