There was a time when San Diego’s Town and Country resort was considered a posh destination. These days, it’s best known for its marquee along Interstate 8, which features one-liners like “There’s no way that everyone was kung fu fighting” and “Welcome archery conference — free ear piercing.”
When I visited in September 2018, the property felt suspended between nostalgia and oblivion. Huge swaths of the late-1960’s-era complex, including the fitness center and hundreds of rooms, were shuttered in preparation for a massive renovation. The areas in operation were decorated with a hodgepodge of kitsch: A large Ron Burgundy poster hung on the wall by the front desk, a flock of plastic lawn flamingos were planted in a patch of artificial turf, and faded pop-art murals painted the elevator doors.
But for the approximately 1,000 people who had paid between $395 and $1,995 to attend the third annual Revolution Against Aging and Death Festival, or RAADfest, the visit to Town and Country was their ticket to a virtually endless future. “We’re on a mission,” James Strole, RAADfest’s fast-talking, silver-haired impresario, told the assembled crowd at the event’s opening ceremony. “We’re creating a new world together — a world without pain, sickness, and death.”
Strole wasn’t speaking hyperbolically. Within the next few decades, he said, it will be normal for people to live for hundreds of years in perfect health. “We’re not talking about life in some decrepit state. We’re talking about life getting better and better and better,” he told his audience, most of whom were already well into their retirement years. “Everybody in this room has that opportunity, no matter what condition you’re in. Your body is miraculous, and it can be turned around.”
Strole was followed onstage by a colorful collection of stem cell cowboys, transhumanists, and robot enthusiasts. The weekend’s biggest draws included Aubrey de Grey, a biogerontologist and anti-death evangelist known for an unruly beard that stretches below his chest and his claim that the first human to live to 1,000 is already living among us; Bill Faloon, a former undertaker who runs a “fellowship for longevity enthusiasts” named the Church of Perpetual Life; and Ray Kurzweil, the inventor and futurist who predicts that we will soon be injecting millions of nanobots into our bodies to fight disease and enhance our cognitive abilities.
The unorthodox cast of characters wasn’t the only reason RAADfest differed from a typical scientific conference. Between three and four hours of every day’s programming was given over to an “anti-aging and age-reversal expo” called RAADcity. Inside, vendors hawked $370 on-site IV infusions of an “all-natural, holistic” vitamin therapy, as well as “youngering” stem cell treatments, lessons in “sex magic,” and something called the Theraphi Plasma System, which claimed to reverse aging, tame children with anger and impulsivity issues, and cure end-stage cancer. One Tampa-based doctor was selling a four-treatment package of “young plasma” for $27,000. Add in a steady stream of amateur song-and-dance numbers and a rambling, free-associative keynote from actress Suzanne Somers and it was tempting to write off RAADfest as nothing but a gathering of kooks, crackpots, and hustlers.
But there were also serious discussions about legitimate, cutting-edge research being conducted at top laboratories and institutes around the world. Faloon, who speaks with the urgency of a door-to-door salesman, enthused about the benefits of NAD+, a co-enzyme with lifespan-extending potential that forms the basis of a new company founded by Leonard Guarente, an MIT professor and aging pioneer. When Kurzweil said he took more than 100 pills and supplements each day, he singled out metformin, a widely used treatment for Type 2 diabetes that prominent longevity researchers believe could treat a range of age-related ailments, including heart disease and cancer. One of the most discussed topics at RAADfest was senolytics, a new class of drugs under development to treat cellular senescence, the scientific term for what happens to our bodies as they deteriorate with age.
“People are fucked up, you know? They’ve been able to trick themselves into thinking that aging is some sort of blessing in disguise.”
This tension between the fringe and the mainstream encapsulates both the dynamic state of aging research and the many open questions about how this research will, in all likelihood, profoundly change the way our species ages in the future. At RAADfest, it is taken for granted that research coming out of established labs across the country will make it possible for humanity to achieve something close to immortality. The prominent scientists who work in those labs, however, overwhelmingly view infinite lifespans as a pipe dream and caution that the interventions they’re working on, while promising, have yet to make humans live longer.
There is nobody who straddles that divide more than de Grey, a 55-year-old British expat who lives in a mountain retreat about 70 miles south of San Francisco. He’s tall and thin, and his ponytail and conspicuous facial hair invite comparisons to Rasputin, the early 20th-century Russian mystic. He’s also a bona fide celebrity in anti-aging circles—when I sat down with him on an outdoor patio during the second morning of RAADfest, our conversation was repeatedly interrupted by admirers who wanted to shake his hand or get his autograph.
De Grey spent the early part of his career as an artificial intelligence researcher and software engineer. When he was 26, he met and eventually married Adelaide Carpenter, a biogeneticist two decades his senior. “Ever since I heard of the concept of aging, it was always obvious that aging was a medical problem and therefore potentially solvable,” he told me as he ran his fingers through his beard. “And so I went through my whole early life just presuming that it was being worked on quite hard by people who were good at that.”
But the more time he spent with Carpenter and her colleagues, the more de Grey became convinced that his presumption was wrong. While technologists like himself were interested in “manipulating nature,” it seemed to de Grey that basic scientists like his wife were content with merely understanding it. (De Grey and Carpenter divorced in 2017; he was at RAADfest with his new fiancée.) “I had never conceived of the possibility that anyone could not think that aging was the world’s worst problem,” he told me. “But when I did, I decided to switch fields.”
It wasn’t long before de Grey was studying aging full-time — with the goal to ultimately cure it. In the 2000s, he helped launch two separate nonprofits to tackle the problem: the Methuselah Foundation, with the motto “to make 90 the new 50 by 2030,” and the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) Research Foundation.
De Grey’s mad-scientist appearance and willingness to make bold predictions helped garner attention for his efforts, although it often seemed that the media took him more seriously than the scientific community. After de Grey predicted in 2004 that, within 25 years, scientists would develop “effective rejuvenation therapies for humans,” the MIT Technology Review sponsored a forum into whether SENS was “so wrong that it is unworthy of learned debate.” A few months after that, more than two dozen leading aging researchers published a piece in a peer-reviewed journal that ridiculed de Grey’s approach by quoting H.L. Mencken: “For every complex problem, there is a simple solution, and it is wrong.”
But a decade and a half later, it looks like de Grey might be getting the last laugh: Today, “radical life extension” has entered both the scientific and cultural mainstream, and de Grey’s foundations are awarding grants to some of the most renowned scientists in the field. When I asked him why traditional geroscience researchers were entirely absent from RAADfest’s lineup, he insisted that some of them were “very much on board spiritually with what we do here” but were afraid of offending conservative “mainstream” funders, like the National Institutes of Health and philanthropists “who would rather die than live forever.”
De Grey refers to this as “the pro-aging trance,” which highlights another challenge he faces: In polls, a vast majority of Americans say they would not want medical treatments that slow the aging process and allow people to live decades longer.
“People are fucked up, you know?” he said. “They’ve been able to trick themselves into thinking that aging is some sort of blessing in disguise.”