The Anti-Aging Habits of Longevity Experts

These people are all researching ways to halt or reverse aging. So what are they doing to help themselves live longer?

Illustration by Victor Kerlow

W e all know what we should do to live long, healthy lives — exercise regularly, sleep well, avoid overindulgences — but aren’t there any magic pills or supplements that improve your chances even further? For some insight, I asked a number of scientists who are deep in anti-aging research what they take.

There’s no consensus. Some use the products of their research, popping pills or getting scans that they’ve started companies to develop. Others say we don’t know enough yet to risk swallowing something that might also cause harm. Someday, they all hope, science will help them and everyone else stay healthier and live longer. In the meantime, keep exercising.

Here’s what four scientists do in their own lives:

Aubrey de Grey insists that he never thinks about his own aging (he’s 53) and takes no steps to affect it because “the overwhelming message from research is that they will do very little good.” He adds: “I actually don’t take any such measures, other than the most important one of all, namely to try all I can to hasten the development of new therapies that will keep me and everyone else youthful in old age.” In his day job, as chief science officer and co-founder of the anti-aging non-profit SENS Research Foundation, de Grey works on an “engineering” approach to aging: repairing damage as it occurs, to keep levels low enough that disease won’t result. His devotion to that strategy probably comes at the expense of his own aging rate, de Grey says, “mostly in the sense that I don’t get nearly enough sleep.”

Judith Campisi, who is in her 60s, also denies thinking much about her own fate. “I’m too busy,” says Campisi, who studies the molecular basis of aging at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging outside San Francisco. She is also a cofounder of Unity Biotechnology, a company that aims to counter aging by eliminating cells that have stopped dividing and may be leading to disease.

Only slightly tongue-in-cheek, she says the main steps she takes to keep herself young and energetic are drinking wine and worrying. That’s right: rather than avoiding stress, Campisi says she embraces it. Challenging the brain with stress keeps it young, she says. She’s quick to note that she’s talking about the kind of pressure inherent in the life of a busy scientist, not the life-or-death stress of, say, a Syrian refugee.

She last took a vacation in 2009. “I just don’t have any great desire or need to go away for two weeks and sit on a beach. I’d be bored to death.” She enjoys a glass of good wine whenever she can. “I just love wine. I hang out with winemakers, things like that,” Campisi says. Not only has moderate wine drinking been associated with longevity, but having passions is healthy, she says.

J. Craig Venter, 70, says his science has already saved his life twice. The first time was when he sequenced his own genome. (He was the first person to ever get his own genetic code completely mapped.) That revealed he was at high risk for developing deadly skin cancer, so he became a careful observer of his skin. A few years later he detected a dangerous growth before it could spread. More recently, a workup from a company he co-founded, Health Nucleus, revealed that he had early-stage prostate cancer that was likely to become aggressive. Venter had his prostate surgically removed and has had no repercussions.

He also stays very active. His trainer comes three times a week, he plays tennis regularly, and a few days after our conversation, he was headed to the Arizona desert for a weekend of off-road motorcycle and dune buggy racing. “You can avoid a lot of significant joy in life by doing nothing,” he notes. He rides ensconced in full protective gear, including a helmet and a device that rapidly inflates into a protective bubble in an accident.

Venter has lost more than 50 pounds in recent years, mainly by more careful eating. He’s been on baby aspirin and statins for more than 20 years, because of a family history of heart disease. (His father died at age 59 of sudden cardiac death, less than two weeks after his cardiologist told him he was in fantastic shape.) He takes no vitamins or pills explicitly to extend life. However, he is on the diabetes drug metformin, which is being studied for its possible longevity benefits, since tests detected changes in his insulin sensitivity.

“I’m trying to use the best of scientific knowledge to be as healthy as I can for as long as I can,” he says. “I totally expect to die, without some radical change, some time before I’m 100 years old.”

We all know people who look older or younger than their age. In 2011, Harvard geneticist David Sinclair was helping to start a company called InsideTracker, which aims to measure someone’s biological rather than chronological age. At the time, Sinclair was in his early 40s, but the test said he had the body of a 57-year-old. “I said, I’m going to die young.”

Instead, he aggressively stepped up his anti-aging efforts. Sinclair was among the scientists who first pegged resveratrol, a natural compound found in red wine, as a possible anti-aging supplement. It hasn’t lived up to that hype, but just in case, he’s been taking a concentrated form of it for more than a decade.

In the last year, he added a compound called NMN (Nicotinamide mononucleotide), which his own research in mice suggested had anti-aging effects. The benefits were dramatic, says Sinclair, who is trying to develop the compound into a drug. He quickly lost 15 pounds without significantly changing his lifestyle, bringing him back to his college weight. Sinclair is now 47, but he says InsideTracker measures him at a youthful 31.