Bryan Johnson is Going to Die (Sorry)

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Bryan Johnson is going to die one day. Don’t worry, that’s not a threat. I’m not going to contribute to that end result in any way. I am merely making an educated prediction based upon statistics. I think it’s important to lead with that prediction because all of the mainstream media coverage of this man leads with the fact that Bryan Johnson WANTS to live forever and is going above and beyond to increase his chance of living forever. I want to make it very clear that in my opinion, and in the opinion of the scientists who research longevity, he is not going to succeed. Furthermore, it is my personal opinion that Bryan Johnson is a grifter who, regardless of whether he truly believes he can live forever, is absolutely using his positive press to make a quick buck off of people who are terrified of death and have more money than sense.

This guy pops up in the news every now and again, and the most recent example is this Time magazine article by Charlotte Alter which is, admittedly, pretty entertaining. It still gives him way more credit than he deserves but I have to admit I did chuckle at lines like “He has the body of an 18-year-old and the face of someone who had spent millions attempting to look like an 18-year-old.” Because yeah, if you look at Johnson’s Wiki photo and compare it to Time’s, it’s…well, he’s made a choice and I support his ability to decide what to do with his own face, including throwing it away and starting over from scratch.

Alter hangs out with Johnson for a few days to observe his routine, which includes eating a calorie-restricted vegan diet, taking 111 supplement pills every day, and wearing  a “tiny jetpack” on his penis at night to measure his erections for…reasons.

It nearly goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway: there is no real scientific basis for Johnson’s lifestyle, it actually may be actively bad for his health, and it sounds absolutely miserable. I particularly liked the detail Alter includes from longevity researchers who met Johnson at a conference: ““He looked sick. He was pale. I don’t know what he did with his face,” Dr. Barzilai says, adding that he was alarmed by Johnson’s lack of fat, which plays an important role in the body. “All these MDs, we all kind of agreed that he didn’t look so great.””

That said, I do want to say that there ARE some things he’s doing that WOULD be beneficial in combination with an overall healthy lifestyle: banning electronics from bed, for instance, is a great idea. I mean, electronics other than your nighttime penis jetpack, which all doctors agree everyone should have, whether you have a penis or not.

He’s also terrified of driving, which is honestly pretty healthy! Cars are death machines and if manufacturers installed a device that made drivers acknowledge that before the ignition can be turned on, maybe along with a breathalyzer, it would probably save as many lives as the seatbelt.

Finally, a word about calorie restriction: for decades now, that’s been one of the most promising avenues of life extension. In short-lived species, drastically reducing calories down to what a rat or mouse needs for basic survival extended their lifespans by about 50% and made them overall much healthier, seeming to slow down aging based on several biomarkers. Incredibly, these benefits appear to extend to primates, like in this 2018 study where lemurs who ate about 30% less than their friends lived 50% longer and were healthier overall. However, they did see a reduction in grey matter, but without a corresponding loss in cognitive abilities. So…there might be a downside, but overall it’s pretty promising.

Calorie restriction in humans has also shown promise, but we live so long that the researchers who study it are forced to just look at those biomarkers, which don’t necessarily perfectly correlate to an increased maximum lifespan. So we won’t know for sure for…I don’t know, another 80 years or so?

But those longevity researchers are right in that having a bit of fat on us as we age might help humans survive certain age-related diseases and injuries, and then there’s the issue of needing to pay such close attention to your diet that you don’t accidentally end up malnourished, and then making sure you’re mentally healthy enough that you don’t accidentally end up overly obsessed with disordered eating–it’s a lot. So I’m definitely NOT recommending it, but I do want to acknowledge that yeah, this does have basis in science.

I also want to acknowledge another critical quote in the Time piece, where Dr. Pinchas Cohen, dean of the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California, says “Death is not optional; it’s written into our genes.” This actually sent me on a quest to see what the consensus is on that, and it seems that while that IS true, it is also a bit simplistic and might be misunderstood.

For instance, here’s an overview of the field from researchers at Dr. Barzilai’s institution (that was the guy who said Johnson looked sickly at the aging conference). The perspective, published in Nature Aging to educate those outside the discipline (and available in full online), describes the evidence of a limit to human lifespan as “overwhelming,” but notes that “even if there were a genetic program, a hard limit would not exist, because occasionally individuals would be born with mutations deactivating that program.”

Instead, it seems like the limit is more statistical. It’s a “soft” limit that might occasionally be exceeded by random lucky people, but eventually something’s gonna get you thanks to aging, a complicated process which, yes, is mostly dictated by our genes.

That’s why humans have made huge leaps in MEAN lifespan, mostly thanks to stopping all those infants from dying, but also due to upgrades in our diets and sanitation, but we’ve made zero progress on improving MAXIMUM lifespan. Our oldest verified human was 122 when she died in 1997, and in the 26 years since then no one has even come close to that despite there being a huge improvement in the health of seniors since then and half a million centenarians spread around the world right now.

For that reason, the people who actually study aging and longevity tend to not really consider it important or even scientifically interesting to try to extend our maximum lifespan. It’s such an improbable goal, and additionally, it would benefit pretty much no one. Because we still have so many people dying unnecessarily before they even hit the mean lifespan, and so many more people living unnecessarily painful lives even when they hit or exceed that mean lifespan. That’s what researchers call “healthspan:” the amount of your life you live that is healthy. While maximum lifespan is practically immutable, we can, through research and public policy, improve mean lifespan and healthspan for the majority of humans living today. And so isn’t that where we should focus our energy?

Bryan Johnson clearly disagrees, and honestly I think I understand why. First of all, there’s the grift I mentioned earlier. Johnson got his millions of dollars because he founded Braintree, a payment processor that he sold to PayPal for $800 million in 2013. According to a 2017 article in MIT’s Technology Review, he asked hundreds of experts what to do with his windfall, and their advice led him to investing in “neurotechnology,” creating the company Kernel with $100 million in seed money, which he used to hire Dr. Theodore Berger, Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience and Director of the Center for Neural Engineering at the University of Southern California. Berger developed a “memory prosthesis,” but then left Kernel six months later because “Berger’s vision, according to several people, was too complex, too speculative, and too far from becoming a medical reality, while Johnson hoped to see a return on his investment sometime soon. “They have a new direction, but we’re still talking,” says Berger. “The basic reason is it was going to take too long. It’s one thing to think about this and quite another to do it.”

“Johnson says he concluded that Berger’s work “is really interesting, but not an entry point” into a commercially viable business.”

That’s weird because I recently heard that capitalists drive scientific progress. Huh. I guess that’s another story.

Anyway, digital brains weren’t profitable enough, so Johnson has now pivoted to a new company that he calls “Blueprint,” which offers to “Build your Autonomous Self” with an “algorithm that takes better care of me than I can myself.” The “starter kit” is “coming soon” but in the meanwhile you can buy 1.5 liters of olive oil for $75. It’s sourced “from both hemispheres to ensure freshness and abundant polyphenols, which studies show can potentially safeguard against various cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and neurodegenerative conditions by reducing oxidized LDL.” Oh also “It’s peppery and smooth.” Just as a heads up, CostCo has olive oil with the same number of polyphenols for $18.99 for two liters.

So yeah, it’s a grift, in my opinion. He wasn’t seeing the immediate returns on computer-brain interface and he didn’t like the complicated gobbleygook from the scientists who actually study it, so instead he decided to be Gwyneth Paltrow. And to one up her, instead of looking pretty or being healthy, his promise is to live forever.

I also want to say I think this does go beyond the grift for him, though: both of his recent companies are focused in some way on avoiding death. One expert quoted in the Time article says, “If you want immortality, you should go to a church,” which is spot on. Johnson grew up Mormon and even did a mission in Ecuador, but left the Church when he was in his 30s. And I think that that background has given him what appears to me to be an absolute, all-encompassing fear of death.

And I get that, I really do: I was raised Baptist and fully believed it, but realized I was an atheist when I was 18. And I was absolutely horrified to realize that I was going to cease to exist one day. HORRIFIED. And yes, people tried to tell me “but you aren’t worried about not existing before you were born” and actually YEAH THAT HORRIFIED ME TOO but also that already happened and this is going to happen, it is NOT the same. I’m glad some people are able to easily transition from assuming they had and would live forever with their loved ones to knowing they were going to cease to exist, but that wasn’t me, at all. I had to really work through some things, mentally, psychologically, philosophically. The two things that did it for me were 1) going on anti-anxiety medication that made me stop obsessing about things I can’t control and 2) accepting that we are all star stuff, that we are the universe learning about itself, that we all continue in an ever-changing and mysterious existence, and that I, as a person, am ultimately not that important.

Carl Sagan and the Buddhists helped a lot, to be honest.

But I think that Johnson hasn’t done that work yet, and like a lot of multi-millionaires and billionaires, he’s stuck on the egocentric desire to extend his own life as long as possible even at the expense of making other people’s lives better. And that’s unhealthy for humanity just as much as it’s unhealthy for Johnson himself.

I guess what I’m saying is that some men would rather wear a bedtime jetpack on their penis than go to therapy.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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