Sergey Young‘s The Science and Technology of Growing Young (Lifespan.io is on Amazon Smile) is a mix of exciting longevity research and heady optimism. In an easy-to-read 272 pages, the investor gives a whirlwind tour of research on aging and the companies that are trying to turn this science into technology.
In good hands
Young writes in a friendly, conversational style that makes the book feel like he is filling you in on something he cares about. It’s clear that he’s not only passionate about extending lifespan and healthspan but also well informed about the longevity research and commercial landscape. That’s hardly surprising given that he founded the Longevity Vision Fund and has been involved in the XPRIZE and other efforts to promote longevity research.
The tone of the writing mitigates my first criticism of the book, which has to do with the endnotes. I prefer that nonfiction books in topics like science and history have strong references supporting their claims and pointing readers to more in-depth material. This book has endnotes, but many of them are to popular science articles, books, or news pieces. That said, there are references to primary scientific literature, and while the choice of references raised flags when I first flipped through the book, it fits well with its lighter style.
Soaring over the longevity science
For me – and perhaps for many of our readers – this book falls on the lighter side of popular science. That’s not a criticism but a description. Some popular science books dive deeply into a topic. In the hands of a good writer, that can be the basis for a challenging but rewarding learning experience, leaving the reader feeling like they worked hard and learned a lot. Other books, such as this one, take a different approach, sacrificing depth for breadth to give readers a broad overview of a field.
It’s an approach that suits Young’s goal quite well. His aim isn’t to explain the intricacies of the biology of aging but to introduce people to the existence of longevity research and the realistic possibility of life extension. A bird’s eye view of the science and the commericalization efforts is an effective way to do that. Young gives an overview of the hallmarks of aging, epigenetics, and aging clocks in the introductory chapters.
Later, as he presents various interventions and technologies that are at different stages of development, he also explains the science they build on, including CRISPR, stem cells, wearable/portable diagnostic devices, and the promise of personalized medicine through -omics platforms.
What you will get out of that as a reader depends, of course, on your background. As a biologist familiar with these topics, much of this wasn’t new information for me, but I did learn some things, especially about how startups and other companies are working to build longevity technologies and new research findings and platforms. That said, I spotted a few errors – for examples, telomeres are not “sequences of proteins” – that sounded a note of caution for me.
The book covers a lot of exciting material (and Sergey Young’s excitement comes through clearly!) and I’m glad to have become aware of these new ideas and approaches, but given the bird’s eye approach, I consider it something like an atlas of longevity – not necessarily an authoritative reference, but a good way to get your bearings before digging deeper into something.
Skipping the social questions about increased longevity
Getting your bearings involves both knowing where you want to go and figuring out how to get there. Sergey Young is quite clear about the former, but the latter was where I felt the book was at its weakest. The Science and Technology of Growing Young offers a sweeping view of longevity research and technology, but in my view, it doesn’t do enough to address how treatments will be developed and equitably distributed, nor does it discuss how we will manage the additional resources such efforts will call for, from rare earth metals to energy.
This may seem a strange criticism to level at a popular science book, but it’s based on goals Young himself set. The book opens with a scene from a techno-utopian future, and then Young writes, “I would like to assure you that this future world is not only possible – it is almost inevitable.” He says the longevity technologies described will eventually be “readily available and universally affordable.” This expands the scope of the book’s claims from longevity research and possible technologies to the realization and use of those technologies, which are social questions.
Young’s answer to these questions is the same optimism that he has about the progress of longevity research. “Dictators will soon pass into history,” he writes, and he assures us that the concern about climate change is driven by disregarding positive information and a pessimistic failure to envision technological solutions.
One might choose to trust his optimism about research and technology based on his position as a well-connected investor who is heavily interested in longevity. However, when it comes to the broader questions of how the fruits of these developments will be distributed in our societies, how they will shape and be shaped by existing inequalities, there’s arguably less reason to trust Young’s intuition or optimism.
For example, early in the book, Young wrote that “agricultural efficiency is rising faster than we can make use of the output.” While world hunger is less than it was two decades ago, according to UN data, millions of people still suffer from malnutrition and starvation, even in the world’s wealthiest countries.
Guidelines for longevity
The book closes with a set of guidelines to living longer. For the most part, these are basic good sense guidelines that have been made more precise (for example, what does “eat well” really mean?) and given a foundation in research.
The main caveat here is that Young also includes nutritional supplements in his longevity advice. He clearly highlights some of the problems, such as the fact that the supplements industry is poorly regulated, but he nevertheless advocates for them, saying “I am a big believer in supplements” and the idea that “a particular supplement does not have ironclad proof of positive health effects shouldn’t discount it entirely from consideration.” Although he warns readers, “don’t experiment with your body,” the choice to include this in his guidelines will arguably inspire readers to do just that.
Some of this longevity advice will be difficult for some people to realize because of financial limits or other constraints – for example, not everyone can afford to get frequent health checks. Young acknowledges this, and there’s plenty of good advice that should be accessible to a large number of people, so it’s not a big problem.
Overall, The Science and Technology of Growing Young offers an easy-to-read, optimistic, and exciting view of longevity research and future technologies to extend lifespan and healthspan. Readers who are already quite familiar with longevity will probably find it more appealing as a gift for someone they’d like to introduce to the field, but even informed readers will probably find something new here. Given its optimistic tone and failure to seriously tackle the underlying social issues, this book is unlikely to convince skeptics, but it’s a great snapshot of where things stand and where they might go.