Hacking Youth

Bulletproof Coffee Founder and "Biohacker" Dave Asprey is certain that he's going to live to 180. The trick? Manipulating mitochondria, the power generators inside our cells.

“It seems highly likely we have reached our ceiling,” Dr. Jan Vijg, an expert on aging at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told the New York Times. “From now on, this is it. Humans will never get older than 115.”

This comes from a study in Nature published last October that shattered the hopes of many in the burgeoning anti-aging movement. Life expectancy has doubled in the past 150 years, and many believe we can double it again. Several tech-flavored institutions—A4M, Silicon Valley Health Institute, and others—have popped up to disrupt aging itself. Is it in any surprise that a culture obsessed with youth should want to preserve it forever?

Dr. Vijg’s depressing conclusion comes from data showing that while life expectancy is indeed longer than ever, the age of the oldest humans, a much better indicator of our top limit, plateaued in the 1980s. In other words, while more people are living into old age, old age is still old age—at least statistically speaking.

“You’d need 10,000 worlds like ours to have the chance that there would be one human who would become 125 years,” Dr. Vijg said.

There are other scientists, however, who call Dr. Vijg's position naïve. James W. Vaupel, the director of the Max-Planck Odense Center on the Biodemography of Aging, told the New York Times that Dr. Vijg's conclusions are "a travesty" and said, “[i]t is disheartening how many times the same mistake can be made in science and published in respectable journals.” In a way, the declaration of a human age limit is analogous to the declaration of an end to human history. It can come off short-sited, egocentric by assuming that we, and only we, are the ones who represent the peak of human development.

Dave Asprey

Dave Asprey

Anti-aging believers have an ally in the form of a famous tech magnate turned nutrition guru. Dave Asprey is the free-spirited founder of Bulletproof, a “biohacking” brand that specializes in making coffee with butter in it. He honestly believes that he’s going to live to 180 years old. Talking to him about it feels strange, fascinating and sort of exhilarating, like talking to someone who believes in aliens or big foot. If he wasn’t so rich, and [at least some of] his results so proven, he'd come off as a kook.

The oldest known person in history was Jeanne Calment, a French woman who died in 1997 at age 122. She was born about the time Wild Bill was getting killed in a saloon in Deadwood and General Custer was getting killed by Plains Indians in Montana. Calment smoked cigarettes from the age of 21 (1896) to 117 (1992), and enjoyed chocolate and wine frequently. She attributes her longevity mostly to her natural calmness. “They don’t call me Calment for nothing,” she once said.

While scientists like Dr. Vijg call Calment an outlier, Asprey believes she represents the new norm. He’s spent millions of dollars testing radical anti-aging methods, using himself as a human guinea pig. He conducts his research and experiments in a lab he built on his sustainable farm/home in Canada. His findings are recorded in his latest book, Head Strong.

Jeanne Calment, the oldest living human in history 

Jeanne Calment, the oldest living human in history 

“If you're reasonably healthy and you do the basic things, assuming no trucks hit you and things like that, you can do 120 easily,” says Asprey. “With existing technology, I don't think 180 is even at all radical. I think it's probably conservative.”


Enter the Mitochondria

For Asprey, it all comes down to mitochondria, the hundreds and sometimes thousands of little powerhouses inside each of our cells. Many scientists theorize that mitochondria originally evolved from bacteria. Thus, Asprey believes that we should treat them like more like bacteria. Bacteria are sensitive to their environment, and their environment is something that we can control.

“They evolved over two billion years from ancient bacteria, the little red ones, that floated on the ocean surface during the day, and sunk down at night,” says Asprey. “So one of the biggest and most unknown things is that mitochondria are exquisitely sensitive to light. They expect every day in the morning to get some ultraviolet light, and some red light, and some blue light, the whole colors of the rainbow.”

By controlling the light around us, particularly blue lights from fluorescent bulbs or computer screens, we can limit damage to our mitochondria.

“White LED lights cause 23% more damage to mitochondria in your eyes than incandescent lights,” he says. For this reason, Asprey wears special light-blocking glasses while using the computer, though he swears they aren’t dorky. “They’re cool. They definitely aren’t blue blockers.”

Asprey believes that aging boils down to mitochondria because when they’re supplying the proper amount of energy system malfunctions that cause things like cancer simply don't occur.

“Mitochondria decide if you get cancer, they decide if you'll get Alzheimer disease, they decide if you'll get just about any disease of aging. These are always the function of an energy failure.”

So what else can you do to keep your mitochondria producing power at 100%? The key is to think about things that would affect bacteria.

“Temperature is another thing that they're sensitive to. A practice that I recommend in the book, that is purely a mitochondria practice, is you take your shower in the morning and at the end of the shower you turn the water full cold blast and let it hit you in the face and run down your chest. It tells the body that it's time to prune the weak mitochondria and grow stronger ones.”

Then, of course, there’s the outside stuff we put into our cells.

“When you eat enough of the right kinds of undamaged foods, like fats that aren't deep fried and things like that, the mitochondria in your brain literally have more energy. Their job is to convert food and air into electrons for you to think, and move, and feel. If you can make that better by eating the right stuff, it absolutely changes things.”

This sounds incredibly appealing, but is it really real? Asprey has been accused of sounding appealing while not having the science to back it up in the past. In 2014, he was called out by Joe Rogan for allegedly falsifying some of the science behind Bulletproof Coffee.

On the other hand, it's impossible to argue that Asprey hasn't produced real, visible results. He used to be obese and almost diabetic, and became a classic before/after case. 

Furthermore, some people swear by Bulletproof Coffee, claiming that it gives them a much more balanced energy boost than normal coffee. "It's a much cleaner buzz," one friend who swears by the stuff told me.

Asprey attributes his success not to a shift in willpower, but to a shift in perspective. It wasn’t about working harder, but working smarter.

“I assumed what every fat person, and frankly what every entrepreneur thinks: if I'm failing it's because I didn't try hard enough. So it becomes a question of weakness and a question of moral failing. So you beat yourself up. Every fat person has these thoughts, like, oh my goodness if only I had more willpower. But no one ever talks about where willpower comes from.”

The willpower, he believes, comes from mitochondria, and if you care for the mitochondria, the rest will follow. He approaches the body like a hacker would a computer system, hence the term "biohacking."

“Pretty soon I realized that this was an absolutely hackable system. Any hacker out there can you tell you, you don't need to know everything about a system in order to take control of it, or in order to change it. You just need to know enough, and we know enough right now to make radical changes in how our bodies preform, how long you're going to live, how smart you'll be, how strong you'll, how much sleep you need.”

It remains to be seen whether Asprey is a visionary genius or a charlatan. Nonetheless, his audacity is refreshing. He truly believes that he’s going to make it to 180, despite what everyone says. Just hearing those words spoken, with a straight face, by someone with the resources to make it happen is stimulating in itself. It's like hearing Howard Hughes making some seemingly crazy proclamation that you’re not sure whether is nuts or genius.

At any rate, Asprey believes there’s only one thing that can stop him.

“The most likely thing to get in the way of my 180 year goal is physics,” he says. “Which means a car accident.”

The nice thing about this little experiment is that it's not something you can fake. Barring such an accident, biology itself will decide whether we can make it to 180...and whether we really want to.