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Sonia Arrison: “Aging Is One of the Last Unifying Issues”

Steve Israel and Newt Gingrich agree.

Sonia ArrisonSonia Arrison
 

Sonia Arrison is an entrepreneur, investor, and best-selling author. Her book “100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything”, published in 2011, was one of the first to bring the topic of longevity to the general public’s attention. Sonia is also founder of 100 Plus Capital and Chair of the Alliance for Longevity Initiatives, a groundbreaking bi-partisan non-profit aimed at educating and influencing politicians and public opinion.

Your book on life extension was a pioneering one, written more than a decade ago. How would you describe this decade? Are you satisfied or disappointed with how things have been going in the longevity field?

First, it’s hard to believe a whole decade has gone by. Time flies fast, and the older you get, the faster it flies. I think, on the science and the business front, things are going well. None of us in the movement will be satisfied until we actually have full-on longevity-enhancing therapies on the market, but we’re going in the right direction. Science is going in the right direction. As Cynthia Kenyon once said to me, science always moves faster than you think it will, and it always moves slower than you think it will. So, you’re always surprised, and that’s just how it is, but it is moving and that’s good.

For instance, many things are different from 10 years ago. AI is much more ingrained in every aspect of research. There used to be separate AI companies and bio companies, but now almost every bio company uses AI.

What I’m disappointed in though, or definitely not satisfied with, is progress made on this issue in society. Public policy and regulations haven’t kept up with the science. I think it’s just a matter of educating the public and politicians as to what’s happening in the healthspan field. And here, we should note that it’s better to discuss our goal of extending healthspan rather than using the term longevity, because what everybody cares about is being healthy.

By the way, one of the things I liked about your book was how unabashed you were about lifespan extension, including extreme life extension. Interestingly, during this decade it became almost inappropriate to talk about, it’s more healthspan now.

I think the thing that most people care about is health, right? So, the term healthspan is very useful because that’s what most scientists are aiming at. They’re trying to extend health, but of course, if you can extend health long enough, then it turns into healthy longevity.

I don’t think it helps anybody to try to predict how long anyone’s going to live. It’s just not useful to say, well, maybe we could live to 500 or to 1000 years. That’s because just living to a healthy 150 years would be great at this point. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do that? And once we get over that hump, then we can start talking about 500 years, but now it’s too early to do that, it’s wildly aspirational.

There have been some bumps along the road, though, some setbacks, like with senolytics and resveratrol, both of which were mentioned in your book. What are your thoughts on that?

Well, there are always going to be failures. Every sector has big failures, that’s not uncommon. I don’t think we should be put off by that. And certainly, investors aren’t put off by that. I live in Silicon Valley, and, as you know, here we see companies fail all the time.

So now crypto is a huge thing, but way back when I first moved to California in 1999, payment companies were just starting to come into fruition. There was all this talk about replacing currency, and PayPal was just getting off the ground, and there were competitors that were trying to do the same thing as PayPal, and a bunch of them failed, and we don’t talk about them anymore. It’s the same thing in the bio space: there will be a bunch of companies that fail at something, and then there will be one big winner, and it’s going to be a huge win. And nobody’s going to remember any of the rest.

In the decade since the book was published, life expectancy in the US plateaued and even decreased for certain groups. Is this something that worries you?

It worries me from a societal perspective, because a lot of the reasons for the decrease in life expectancy are lifestyle- and society-based, like the opioid epidemic. It really is one of the big drivers of life expectancy going down, but it’s specific to some groups of people. That really is worrisome because we don’t want this going in the wrong direction. Nobody wants to see people dying sooner than they should based on life expectancy tables.

The goal is for people to be healthy, productive, and happy. So, when we see dips in the life expectancy of certain groups of people, it is worrisome, and it increases divides within society. In the ethics chapter of my book, I discuss this divide between the haves and the have nots. To me, one of the biggest problems that we could face in the future, is that there could be a big lag in the rollout of  life-extending technologies to some groups.

Historically, the wealthy have always had access to new technology before everyone else. Remember those big cell phones in brief cases? But, if the time lag between the wealthy and the poor getting access is too long, that could create real problems. This is why it’s very important that when the technology does hit the marketplace, there are ways to make sure it reaches all areas of society in a reasonable amount of time. When it comes to digital technologies, the marketplace often takes care of this issue, so hopefully new biotechnologies that make heavy use of the digital will fall in this category as well.

You are the Chair of the newborn Alliance for Longevity Initiatives. Please tell us about A4LI, why we need it, and how it differs from previous attempts to influence politicians on the issue of life extension.

We are the first 501(c)(4) to lobby for longevity. We’re very proud of that. Being a 501(c)(4) allows us to lobby politicians directly. It also allows us at some point to create a super PAC so we can raise money to support politicians in the electoral cycle. We plan to be very active in monitoring politicians and having a database of which ones are pro-longevity and which ones aren’t and trying to get more of them on the pro-longevity side. Right now, it’s sort of a blank slate because a lot of them don’t even know about this issue.

That’s why we’re so necessary. Somebody needs to go around DC and talk to all the politicians and explain to them why this is the biggest issue that they should be focusing on – particularly the representatives that are interested in healthcare, because this is the next level of healthcare, right? It’s about trying to keep Americans healthy rather than responding to the health crisis after it happens. We see that one of the problems with our system is that we don’t focus enough on prevention, we are very reactive. This has to change.

Not only are we going to lobby politicians, we’re also going to attempt to educate the public. That’s a part of our mission. We’ll be releasing primers and polls, reaching out to communities to make sure that people understand that this is something they can be talking to their politicians about. If you have a relative who’s sick with one of the diseases of aging, like cancer or Alzheimer’s, then aging is the root of your problem.

I like the bipartisan nature of A4LI, especially in these divisive times. Why does this cause bring politicians with different world views together, and how does ideology affect their views on life extension?

I think this is one of the last issues that people on both sides of the aisle can actually agree on. This makes it an exciting area to work in because it’s nice to be able to bring people together, especially since we see so much fighting on the national stage these days. So, it was great to have at our launch event Steve Israel from the Democrats and Newt Gingrich from the Republicans agreeing with each other. Steve Israel was like: “I’d never thought I’d be agreeing with Newt Gingrich, but here I am.” So, that’s nice. It’s very uplifting. After all, everybody wants to be healthy.

Do you also have disagreements?  After all, people from the two sides of the aisle might view the question of longevity differently. In your experience, what works best for whom – for instance, economic or humanitarian arguments?

These are not disagreements but different reasons for why people are there. Ideology does have an impact on why people are supporting the longevity movement. Interestingly, the economic and humanitarian arguments kind of go together. You would think (and maybe to some extent, this is true) that the conservatives are more swayed by the economic argument and the liberals are more swayed by the humanitarian argument, but honestly, I think everybody is swayed by the humanitarian argument.

If you go back and watch our launch event, Newt Gingrich said that while the economics matter, the humanitarian part is even more important: you don’t want to see your loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s. So, everybody from every political perspective seems to agree on that.

Yes, this might be the biggest common denominator ever.

Yes, it really is. But after you get past that common denominator, you see that the conservatives are much more interested in the economics and the national security benefits of longevity, and in the economic competitive advantage that having a healthier workforce gives.

To the extent that we can beat China, or whoever our adversary is at the time, through having a healthier workforce, the conservatives will be all for that. And on the more liberal side, or the Democratic side, I think people are more interested, say, in universal health. They are much more convinced by the equalization argument: we need universal health, so that everybody can have an equal footing to live their best life. But everybody can still agree on the necessity of prolonging healthspan.

But are the conservatives ready to pour a lot of budget money into it?

I think they will be once they understand what it’s about. We are at this nascent stage right now where not many politicians understand why this is going to be so epic and paradigm-shifting. And once they understand that, I could imagine our military leaders saying, yes, we need to push this longevity agenda now because it’s a national security issue.

And I would argue that there’s even an economic argument for the left: look, if we don’t have to spend so much money on healthcare, Medicare, all those services, we can pump that money back into things like education and universal kindergarten – we can repurpose all that wasted money that’s currently spent on procedures and pills that don’t actually cure anyone.

Or maybe, with healthcare costing less, it will be easier to push the case for universal healthcare.

Perhaps. The less expensive it is, the easier it would be for the government to take it on.

Did the onslaught of COVID, a clearly age-related disease, change attitudes toward life extension? Do you see an increased sense of urgency?

One of the silver linings of COVID is I that it has made people much more aware of the fact that aging is a risk factor. I mean, everyone kind of knew it already – that you don’t tend to get cancer or heart disease until you get old, but we just saw that as something natural and it didn’t hit us that hard. But with COVID it was clear, obvious, and in your face – that aging is a serious risk factor for disease. That’s really woken a lot of people up.

Funny enough, I think it may have resonated more with the younger people than with the older people. This is just anecdotal, of course. I don’t have any data on this, but I feel like young people are even more energized about that anti-aging agenda now because they see the carnage and they’re like, wow, we need to stop this from happening again.

Yes, I see a lot of young people in our field. I think, when we first learn about death at a young age, it really hits us hard, and later we get used to it. But now people can actually act on this.

Right, before it gets to them. They’re like, wait, if there are other things like COVID, maybe we should try to stop them before we get there.

Your background is technology analytics. What are the most important contributions by technology to geroscience today?

Well, AI is probably the most important thing that happened. There are other things, like 3D modeling, 3D printing, the ability to build up big computing platforms, big data, et cetera. But I think there’s also a sort of a more ideological thing that came from technology in that a lot of people now see biology as an engineering project, rather than just a kind of a black box thing that we can’t and shouldn’t try to touch. I think, now there are more people who are saying, well, let’s just open that box and see what’s in there and if we can re-engineer some stuff.

But in a way, AI also makes biology a black box, because we put in the data, we receive the results, we can verify them, but we might not have the slightest idea how it works.

Yes, that is true, except that with the biology, researchers also don’t create the thing that’s going in and the thing that’s coming out. With AI, at least you code the thing that’s going in, so there’s a little bit more control over the process, but you’re right, AI is also kind of nebulous.

Anyway, the point is that there’s a lot more human capital coming into the field now because it’s seen as an engineering project, and that’s one of the major contributions from the tech industry.

Which directions and discoveries in the longevity field make you especially optimistic? How do you see the timeline for anti-aging interventions?

There are a lot of exciting areas of research in aging – senolytics, regenerative medicine, and gene therapy, to name a few. But I really try to not have a timeline. I think it’s dangerous and not helpful to try to make predictions, because you never know when the next huge breakthrough is going to happen. So, I really hesitate to ever try to make any kind of predictions about when any of this is going to happen.

I will say that there are more shots on goal today than there ever were, and that means it’s more likely that we’ll actually get one in the net. This makes me optimistic not about any particular type of science, but just because of the fact that there are more directions now and more people working on them. It’s inevitable that at some point, a really big breakthrough is going to happen.

What are the guiding principles behind your investments in biotechnology?

I don’t invest in science projects. A lot of people come to me with a science project that you can’t turn into a business just yet. Maybe it will be a business, but it might take another five or 10 years. So, one of my principles is that it has to be translatable. You have to be able to turn it into a product of some sort that you can make money from selling. That’s a really basic principle for me.

Then, I look for things that shift the paradigm, that really push the envelope and are going to make a huge contribution, because I only make a limited number of investments. So, I’m trying to invest in things that are going to be really epic, which means many of them are very risky, they’re not sure things, not just another iteration of something else.

The team has to be right. This is really important, because sometimes, I see companies that have a great idea, they’ve got great technology, and it is a business, but the team is just… you know they’re not going to be able to execute. It’s painful because you just want to tell them, but even if you tell them the reason that you’re not investing, they don’t go and change their team. They just try to find a different investor.

Do you have specific criteria for this, or do you just meet the team, and you immediately see they’re not up to the task?

It’s just meeting the team and seeing whether or not the team members agree with each other. Sometimes they’ll start arguing in a pitch meeting, and that’s a very bad sign. Another question is, how on top of things are they? Do they have all the data together? Are they organized? Do they look like a team that’s going to be able to execute, or are they sort of a disheveled professor who has this great idea, but they never going to be able to take this somewhere because they don’t have a plan? There has to be a plan.

Do you think there’s a lot of snake oil peddling going on in the field?

I think there’s still snake oil out there, which is unfortunate. I think this is the uniquely bad thing about our field in that the term originated in this area. But that said, there are scammers in every area of life, though some are easier to spot than others. I know a lot of VCs here in Silicon Valley who invest in software and it’s easier and faster to validate whether or not the claims of a particular software program are snake oil-like.

The last chapter of your book is dedicated to the leaders of the longevity field. Some names are still here, obviously, but what new names would you put on that list today?

Well, definitely Yuri Milner, with his Breakthrough Foundation and Altos Labs. Jim Mellon. Now, I don’t know if everybody would agree with me on this, but the division between longevity and healthcare is blurring, they’re sort of coming together, and this is great. Take the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. Just recently, a researcher who I know at Stanford who is doing amazing work on anti-aging solutions for the brain, got some big funding from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. So, they are dedicated to healthcare as a whole, and they are also beginning to fund longevity research.

Also, this is not a single person, but the crypto community stepped up and they didn’t exist in this space before. I am so happy to see them. They really understand the engineering bit of it, and they’re very dedicated to learning, and they’re self-starting people. So, they are becoming really involved and they’re donating – they’re putting their money where their interests lie.

In your book, you quite expertly dismiss many arguments against life extension, but is there something about the ethical and societal aspects of it that you feel like you don’t have a fully satisfying answer to? For instance, I am not sure we have a convincing solution to the potential problem of vertical mobility, of old people making it hard for the younger generation to advance.

I don’t think this is going to be a problem. Yes, the older people will have broader networks, but those will be older networks of old people and the new people coming up as they do today, they make their own networks within their younger group. That younger group goes out and does things, and then the older people will be worse off because they weren’t part of it. Being the wiser, older people they are, they will know that they should not try to lock the young people out, because they will miss out on opportunities.

The great thing about longevity is that people tend to get wiser, if not smarter. They get to understand the value of working together. I think that when we’re young, we’re trying to just scrape our way up and don’t really value community. Once you’re older, you start to see the value of community and you can sit back and say, you know what? I don’t always have to be the winner or the leader. I can be part of the community, and everybody still wins.

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About the author
Arkadi Mazin

Arkadi Mazin

Arkadi is a seasoned journalist and op-ed author with a passion for learning and exploration. His interests span from politics to science and philosophy. Having studied economics and international relations, he is particularly interested in the social aspects of longevity and life extension. He strongly believes that life extension is an achievable and noble goal that has yet to take its rightful place on the very top of our civilization’s agenda – a situation he is eager to change.
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