Andrew Steele is a physicist who became interested in longevity several years ago and began a career as a bioinformatician before becoming a longevity advocate, quickly making a name for himself with numerous media appearances. In 2021, Steele authored Ageless, which we reviewed back then, crowning it as one of the best entry-level books in the field. Steele also runs a longevity-related YouTube channel and gives talks in front of diverse audiences. We discussed the challenges of communicating the science of aging and the idea of extending human lifespan, talking about how to elevate them to the top of the world’s agenda.
You are one of the most successful longevity advocates today. How did you become involved in this field?
Firstly, thank you! It’s actually a funny story: I basically changed my career because of a graph. I was coming to the end of my physics PhD sometime around 2010-2011 when I stumbled upon a graph of your risk of death versus your age. In fact, it’s an exponential curve, with risk of death doubling every eight years or so. This means that your risk of death,which as someone under 40 is less than 1 in 1000 per year, can eventually get very big very quickly. In your 90s, it’s more like 1 in 6 per year: life and death at the roll of a die. As a human, that’s a bit terrifying, maybe, but as a physicist, I had a slightly different perspective: what is it that’s causing this remarkably universal process, and can we do anything about it?
Luckily, around the same time, I also learned something exciting: in 2009, the ITP [Interventions Testing Program] study on rapamycin came out. It showed that we could intervene in aging with a drug, even later in life, and make mice live longer. Obviously, there had been decades of progress before then, but a few things happened in a relatively short period of time that made it seem like the idea of slowing aging wasn’t a pipe dream.
So, I thought, I’ve got to become a biologist and find out whether something can be done about it. But what I found in my five years as a computational biologist was that even though I was working with some incredible colleagues, very smart people with degrees from great universities, I was often the smartest guy in the room when it came to aging biology.
That isn’t because I’m some kind of genius, it’s just because I’d read a few books, a few papers. I hadn’t even gone particularly deep into the field at that point in my career. But if you talk to people who have a degree in biology or biochemistry, you find that they’ve often never had a lecture on aging biology. There’s not a single page on it in the textbooks.
During that time, I also met my wife who is a medical doctor, and when I first started talking to her about the idea of treating aging medically, she thought I was crazy. Again, not a single lecture, not a single page in the textbook on this idea that we might have drugs that could intervene in this process.
It just struck me that what the field of aging biology needed more than one more researcher was, basically, PR. We need everyone, from people in the street to scientists, doctors, policymakers, politicians and more, to realize that this is a legitimate field of study. This is why I ended up leaving research and going into trying to talk about this, to write a book.
This lack of awareness is why aging biology gets such tiny amounts of money, even though aging is responsible for 70 percent of deaths globally. More than a hundred thousand people die because of aging every day. For a rich country, it’s between 80 and 95 percent. It’s incredible that politicians don’t realize this. They have friends and relatives who died of cancer or another specific disease (by the way, research into those things still gets far too little funding). But they don’t think about the aging process that gave rise to those diseases in the first place.
This means that a mindset shift is required across the spectrum, from the scientists who are working at the lab bench right up to the person chatting about this down the pub. We need to get the word out to all those people, because the promise of this field far exceeds the level of funding and the level of support that it receives.
After spending about a decade in this field, are you now more optimistic or more pessimistic than you were in the beginning?
I think I’m a mixture of things. Scientifically, the last decade has been perhaps even more incredible than the decade that preceded it. The Hallmarks of Aging paper came out in 2013. It has provided a rallying point for geroscience and became one the most cited biology papers ever.
We’ve seen many incredible things, like actual treatments progressing. We’ve got senolytics now, a whole class of treatments that simply didn’t exist when I first started looking into longevity. We’ve got epigenetic reprogramming. We’d used it for individual cells, but we now have evidence that it can potentially improve aging in whole organisms.
All those interventions are super exciting. The science is progressing. The respect in which I’m less optimistic is that making the case for longevity hasn’t moved on as far. Yes, there has been some increase in public perception and longevity is a real buzzword, but the ways people get exposed to it are less than ideal.
Many of them come across news stories about incredibly rich people doing a variety of, frankly, quite strange interventions to try and extend their lifespan. If this is people’s first exposure to aging biology, and they might start thinking that this is some kooky pastime for gajillionaires that isn’t for the likes of you and me. They don’t realize that a lot of what we’re talking about is drugs that could cost pennies per pill while making all of us live healthier, longer lives without having to go to bed at a very prescribed time every night and do four hours of exercise a day and only eat the same food every single day and so on.
Another challenge is that although longevity and preventative medicine have really increased in their prominence, when you talk about this in policymaking circles, so much of that discussion focuses on diet, exercise, and other lifestyle stuff. While those things are very important, and I am a huge supporter of public health, I think that it’s not as important as dramatically increasing the amount of money we spend researching aging,
That’s because while we know that you can add a decade of life by going from the least to the most healthy dietary patterns and so on, the potential of aging biology vastly outstrips that. Yet, the National Institute for Aging in the US has only about a three-billion-dollar budget. There’s also a running joke in biogerontology that NIA actually stands for National Institute on Alzheimer’s Disease, because the majority of that funding goes on dementia, not on the basic aging biology, understanding the aging process, which is the stuff I care about.
If you drill down to what goes into aging biology per se, it’s about $350 million a year, which is a dollar per American. And this is for studying a process that kills 85% of Americans and is by far the largest cause of suffering in the United States. It just seems wildly disproportionate. Although it’s very exciting to see a lot of private funding come into the field, this is still a drop in the ocean compared to US healthcare spending, which is four trillion – not four billion, but four trillion dollars every single year. Just think about the economic impact that investing in aging research could have.
It’s simply not being recognized. Although the scientific developments are exciting and cool and coming thick and fast, there’s this weird tension between the amount of amazing stuff going on right now and the fact that the field is still dramatically underfunded. Trying to communicate that tension is probably the hardest part of my job.
So, how do we take our field to that new level, turning it into the next war on cancer or on climate change? Where are the bottlenecks?
It’s a slow process, unfortunately, and the way to do it is just to communicate relentlessly. We need to massively expand the audience.
I think the place where we have the most chance of leveraging significant funds is public funding of research. The reason for that is that although senolytics and epigenetic reprogramming are getting a decent amount of private investment, research into most other hallmarks of aging is severely underfunded.
My real worry is that we may learn to perfectly efficiently clear out senescent cells and how to rejuvenate the cells that we haven’t cleared out with the senolytics, but then we all die of extracellular crosslinks or something else.
So, we really need to fire on all cylinders and attack all these things at once. And I think the only way to get that kind of money for that kind of research is to go to government or philanthropy, because a lot of these things are not yet at the point where they are investable.
Yes, we need large sums of money – but they would still be rounding errors on government budgets. They are large for a venture capital investor, but not for the government, a nd we need that money to go into this very basic research.
Very early-stage research isn’t to say that it’s going to take decades to pan out, but it’s still a long bet, and if you’re a government, you can afford to take really long bets. We’ll need to take many such long bets on many avenues in longevity science.
If one of those bets comes to pass, that could pay for all the rest of the research and more, because if we have a real anti-aging intervention, its potential economic impact could be in trillions of dollars. But as a private investor, you’re going to run out of money after investing in only a handful of different companies. This is why we need to keep banging the drum for government research funding. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t also be pushing for investment, but you asked about bottlenecks, and I think that the scarcity of government research funding is the real bottleneck.
But politicians need to know about all this, and what do politicians respond to? Voters caring about stuff. At the end of the day, they want to be re-elected. We need to enact a broad communications campaign. It’s not enough to just reach a few key policymakers or a bunch of investors. We have to get this out to everybody in society, ideally.
Private investors might be investing now in ideas that are not ripe yet. For instance, senolytics is a fascinating idea, but I won’t be surprised if it eventually blows up in our faces. The state, on the other hand, has more stamina, it can afford failures. Is this what you’re saying?
That’s exactly right. I think we have to look at the scale of the potential economic payback here, which is huge. Another problem with private companies is that they cannot reap many of the benefits their drugs create. Those benefits come in a diffuse way; the reward is spread throughout society.
For instance, when people are healthier, it benefits the economy, but the pharma company cannot accrue this benefit, so it doesn’t help to offset the cost of developing the drug. But for society as a whole, it’s important.
That means companies will tend to underinvest, particularly in long-shot research. And I think that the government too doesn’t do this kind of economic analysis very well. For example, for Operation Warp Speed in the US, which was the program that enabled the coronavirus vaccine, the funding was 7 billion, but if we had invested much more to get those vaccines just a bit sooner, the payoff would still be enormous: the economic cost of COVID ran into the trillions, so having vaccines even a tiny bit sooner would’ve saved the billions we might have spent speeding up their development.
I think we’re seeing the same fallacy applied to aging biology. Politicians are not looking at the fact that the benefit of a single year of slowing down of the aging process was calculated to be 38 trillion dollars in the US alone. Yet, no one in government thinks that we need to spend more than a few hundred million.
Yes, it’s a huge discrepancy that I can’t really explain. I suspect some psychological roadblocks here, but I’m not entirely sure what they are. Have you talked to politicians themselves about that?
I have a little bit, and I think there are a few different roadblocks with politicians and policymakers. First, I don’t think they do the cost-benefit analysis very effectively when it comes to aging.
For instance, if you talk to a policymaker, and I’ve mainly done this in the UK for obvious reasons, then they often immediately know how much the UK science budget is. But the way I like to present it is in pounds per person per year, because it illustrates how starkly we underinvest, not just in aging biology, but in all science.
For example, in the UK, we invest £2.80 per person per year in public funded cancer research – and that’s on a disease that kills about a third of people. I think the reason that happens is because both politicians and voters have never been presented with the numbers in that way. And cancer is something everybody is aware of. Aging, on the other hand, has a much, much lower public profile.
In the beginning of the interview, you mentioned a misconception that our field suffers from – that looking for ways to solve aging is a pastime for rich people. Some say that Bryan Johnson embodies this stereotype. When you mentioned people who “go to bed at a very prescribed time every night and only eat the same food every single day”, you obviously meant him. So, what do you think of what he’s doing?
Bryan Johnson blocked me on Twitter after I suggested he should use some of his enormous fortune to fund TAME – a trial trying to investigate whether metformin, a commonly prescribed, very cheap anti-diabetes drug, can slow down the aging process.
I think he should even have some self-interest here, because metformin is a drug that he takes. We don’t have perfect evidence as to whether it works or not, that’s why we need a randomized trial. It is wild to me that someone with that much money wouldn’t use a tiny fraction of his fortune to get the answer.
Moreover, having a successful FDA-approved anti-aging drug would move the needle in terms of public perception, much more than the N=1 experiment Bryan’s running. I think he was a bit hasty to smash that block button, because it wasn’t as though I was making some terrible criticism. I was just suggesting that maybe that was a way he could spend his money.
I think it’s hard to discern what his true motivation is. He maintains that he doesn’t want to make money out of Blueprint, his longevity protocol, but most links on the Blueprint website are Amazon affiliate links or links to where he has a specific promotion code. A few months ago, he started selling olive oil and nut butter. It now bears all the hallmarks of a for-profit venture. He is a businessman and he’s perfectly within his rights to do that, but to me, it looks like he’s running a well-orchestrated and successful PR campaign for a supplement startup.
I’m not even sure he’s increasing his life expectancy, for a few different reasons. The first is that he’s taking a huge number of different supplements every single day. And one thing we know about medicines is that they interact in sometimes unpredictable ways.
We also know that human biology is phenomenally sensitive and complicated, so, even if we had great evidence that every single one of those supplements he’s taking are good in isolation (which we don’t), it’s very likely some of them aren’t when taken together. So, he’s taking quite a big gamble, while probably almost all those health improvements are being driven by diet and exercise. And I don’t even think he needs to follow the exact highly specified diet that he’s doing. Probably most of us could benefit from eating more vegetables and nuts.
The second way in which I worry Bryan is decreasing his own longevity is by reducing the credibility of the field. Look at the comments under his instagram posts. They tend to fall into two categories. The first comes from a loyal band of biohacking fans who are very supportive of what he’s doing. But the second category is people saying, “Even if I had two million dollars a year, which by the way, I don’t because I’m a normal person, I wouldn’t want to live like this. I want to spend time with my family, I don’t want to sleep alone every single night to maximize my sleep score. I want to have a bit of flexibility in my diet, I don’t want to get to bed at the same time every night, I want to have a life.”
Honestly, I think if policymakers come across this, they’re going to think this is some wacky band of billionaires trying to extend their lives to, perhaps, give them more time to spend all the money they’ve accrued in this life. Because that’s what the media is telling them. And the media is all over this because this is the kind of story they love. That might make it harder for us to raise the funding for these trials, and thereby he’s shortening his own longevity by decreasing the reputation of longevity science.
I think everyone in our field, including scientists, enthusiasts, biohackers, and so on, should also be an ambassador. What is your advice to people who do not do longevity advocacy regularly – sort of a crash course?
I do a lot of interviews for mainstream media. They usually ask me about lifestyle and health advice. And I often say that the single best piece of health advice I can give to anybody, if they’re already doing the obvious basics, is to advocate for more funding for aging biology. That might sound like an absolutely bizarre piece of health advice, but I genuinely believe it, because I think that the impact of that research investment could be dramatically greater than the impact of even the best lifestyle interventions you could possibly concoct.
Another important part of advocating for our cause, that I’ve experienced through my interaction with people, is to take it very gently and slowly. The longevity community is very diverse. Some people advocate for extending our healthspan. Then, there are immortalists who want to have their brains uploaded into computers, and so on.
I think the way to win over the most people is to keep things rooted in understanding aging, in trying to prevent disease, in showing that this is just a natural extension of modern medicine, not some kooky biohacking thing that’s only for billionaires, and not science fiction. These are things that are going to happen within most of our lifetimes. We’ve got ideas for treatments that are already in clinical trials. We’ve got many more ideas that we’ve shown to extend lifespan in mice and are waiting for the opportunity to be tried out in human beings.
But you also have to be prepared to answer ethical questions. For instance, I did a talk recently for a pharmaceutical company. Often, the most nerve-wracking talks scientists can give are in front of other scientists, because you’re afraid to say something scientifically illiterate in front of an audience of your peers. But almost all the questions I got in the Q&A session afterwards were about the ethics of life extension. What are we going to do with all the additional people? What’s the environmental impact of people living longer? What about the potential inequality of access to life-extending therapies?
These kinds of questions are very common. It’s important to be on top of them and have convincing answers prepared, because this is almost certainly the first thing that you’re going to get asked. That’s why I made the ethics chapter of my book freely available online.
Aging is something that kills two thirds of people globally. Once you’ve internalized the scale of the ethical positives, the fact that we might have to contend with slightly harder challenges solving environmental problems, or maybe to redefine pensions or inheritance… these are important questions and we do need to think about them, but they’re nothing as large as the human impact of reducing the incidence of age-related diseases.
This all sounds obvious to you and me, and you’re doing a great job providing rational arguments for life extension, and yet we somehow always get ensnared in those ethical debates about whether saving people from dying is actually a good thing. There seem to be deeper psychological underpinnings at play here that I personally haven’t entirely figured out yet.
I think the problem is that throughout human history, aging has existed as a phenomenon, and it seems like such an immutable fact of life. But we, humans, are so adaptable to changing circumstances. People have only been reliably living into their 80s in modern times, even in rich countries. Just 50 years ago, average life expectancy was 10-20 years lower, and in the 1800s or even to the dawn of human history, it was 30 or 40 years.
The idea that most people can expect to grow old is an entirely new phenomenon. And yet many think that living to 80-85 years after having a decent period of retirement that isn’t spent entirely in ill health is normal, that this is nature, this is how things have always been and should be. And when you present to them the idea that we could do something about aging, the whole thing is just so alien to them that many resort to normalizing death.
Whether or not you’re a longevity advocate, “death is bad” should not be a controversial opinion. But then you have Elon Musk saying he thinks death is important because it catalyzes social change, although social change is catalyzed by all kinds of things, not just funerals. What drives a person to say something like that?
Death is a tragedy. There’s this African proverb that I came across while I was writing the book: when a man dies, a library burns. Imagine all that knowledge, all that wisdom accumulated throughout a lifetime. Think about all the human relationships: your family, your friends, your community that are going to grieve your loss.
Whether death impacts upon you personally, is a philosophical question; maybe you don’t feel anything. But the ethical consequences of death seem to me unequivocally bad and I would be happy if there were less death in the world. If you were to say, I wish fewer people died of cancer, or of famine, or in war, or from any other individual cause, people would be in resounding agreement with you. But, as soon as you say, I wish there were less death in the abstract, or you talk about deaths from aging, then people seem to put this in a separate ethical category. It mystifies me.
When you talk about aging writ large, it somehow feels like sci fi. It feels like you’re talking about immortality, like we’re playing God. It tickles a different ethical or moral center in your brain, and I can’t really put my finger on it. I don’t think it’s as simple as fear of death, but I too haven’t quite worked out exactly what it is. It also probably varies from person to person.
I agree it’s a daunting question, so for the last one, let’s get back to earth. There is a debate in the longevity community about what should come first: the major upgrade in awareness and funding, or the results. Some people say we first need to present tangible results, a proof of concept that shows we can slow aging in humans, not just in animal models, and that will give us the needed leverage. Others say that the intent should come first: aging is a huge problem, and we need to pour equally huge resources into solving it, regardless of what we have achieved so far, just like the War on Cancer began before we had any serious results. What do you think is the right strategy?
I think, boringly, we just have to do both. We have to do the best that we can with the money that we’ve currently got and wherever we have a shot at the goal, try and get a working therapy. That is going to be very convincing.
One of the challenges that we have with communicating about this stuff at the moment is that there are many promising things, but not one thing that we can point to that definitely improves how people age. So, having a positive result that we can point to would be really helpful. At the same time, I completely agree that the abstract argument is available.
On the other hand, it’s not as though we have nothing. We have dozens of ways to slow down, maybe even reverse aging in mice. This a proof of principle. The other proof of principle that I love to point to that you don’t have to be a scientist to understand is the existence of animals with negligible senescence like tortoises or naked mole rats. You can just point people to these and say, there’s no reason that we can’t do this for humans. There’s no biological law that says we have to grow older.
So, a fully working treatment in people, or a huge extension of lifespan in mice would be really convincing, but it’s not a precondition for going out and asking for billions of dollars. As I said, we could multiply the funding of aging biology by a factor of 10, and it would still only be 10 dollars per person per year in the US.
I’m quite conservative when it comes to allocating my money, and I’m not someone who’s constantly gambling on the stock market, but I would happily give 10 dollars a year to a possibility of improving my health and lifespan. When you realize just how small the amounts of money we’re asking for are, it’s really easy to make that case.
It’s not as though we’re asking for the entire U. S. economy to pivot around to doing something about aging. We’re saying maybe we could have a tiny rounding error that the military might accidentally spend without even noticing, that might get lost down the back of the sofa. If we could just allocate that money to aging biology, the potential scale of the impact is vast. I think, if we communicate this well enough, people would be willing to allocate the amount of money needed and see what comes out of it.