Notes from the PA Longevity Prize

Last week I had the opportunity (thanks Alton!) to attend the launch event for the Palo Alto Longevity Prize. In short, it’s a $1m prize for substantial progress on “hacking the code of aging”. The Washington Post has more.

$1m is not a lot of money for this. But the hope is that by explicitly saying: “We want people to hack aging, and we will give anyone who does it a prestigious prize” it may attract key scientists already working on this, and also help legitimize the background assumption that aging *is* a disease which *should* be cured.

I have a lot of sympathy with this (h/t Nick Bostrom’s The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant). I also see how curing aging could cause deep social problems. Some remarks I made in a facebook discussion:

I’m actually a little skeptical about the social effects of indefinite lifespan. Max Planck’s notion that “science advances one funeral at a time” is witty, yes, but I think it also largely rings true.

I think we can extend this and say a primary driver of social change is that there’s a constant influx of young people, with newer ideas and more open minds– and that the older, higher-status people who have their hands on the levers of power slowly die off to make room for them.

Death, being the great equalizer, may also incentivize altruism. He who dies with the most toys still dies, after all– unless indefinite lifespan is possible, at which point why give as much to charity, since you might need it later?

This system is terribly inefficient and rather cruel in many ways. But it’s also a time-tested process that sustains society’s dynamism. I am (of course!) in favor of curing aging, but I think there are many potential hidden ‘gotchas’ involved, and I don’t think they’ll be trivial. (Note: brain plasticity-enhancing drugs or prosthetics may help with some of these problems, but I think they’ll have to work around fundamental limitations.)


Here are my notes from the event itself:

The event was really interesting. Lots of interesting folks and interesting conversations.

Basically, some venture capitalists got together and organized a $1m for making significant progress in curing aging in a model organism. Not a boatload of money, but people are scale-insensitive and tend to be prestige-driven, so it’ll probably work just fine as a carrot.

But what does “curing aging” mean? The prize committee had to address two very hard questions:
What IS aging? (What do we lose as we grow older?)
What’s a good, simple, easily-measurable proxy for aging?

Joon Yun (the organizer) settled on the following:
– Aging is most usefully understood as the loss of “homeostatic capacity”: that is to say, our bodies are less able to maintain stability (homeostasis) in the face of various kinds of stress.
– Heart-rate variability (HRV) is a very useful quick-and-dirty proxy for homeostatic capacity. I.e., a variable (within limits!) heart-rate is very highly correlated with our ability to maintain homeostasis (physiological stability). HRV goes up when we eat right, exercise, get good sleep, etc, and goes down under stress, when we age, etc etc. All the correlations are evidently pretty solid.

I was a bit surprised– I hadn’t seen this argument before, but it did seem there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing toward this as a reasonably accurate proxy. It’s also incredibly simple, non-invasive, and apparently has a global footprint, which is nice. Is it the absolute best proxy for health? Well, probably not, but we could do worse.

Other notes:
– Healthcare to date has basically involved propping up someone’s homeostasis until their homeostatic capacity can take over and get them back to healthy. This doesn’t work when someone’s homeostatic capacity is itself damaged. So we’re good at prolonging life, but not at giving people back their resilience. What healthcare really needs to do is figure out how to fix peoples’ homeostatic capacity.
– Trying to fix aging is hard. But, even attempts that fail earn a consolation prize: we learn what doesn’t work. This stuff is valuable even if no huge leaps come of it. And you gotta start somewhere!
– The brain matters a lot, and an aging brain can cause all sorts of tricky problems. Often, when it looks like an organ is failing, it’s actually the brain’s regulation of that organ that’s malfunctioning. Avoid stressful situations if you don’t want your brain to mismanage its regulation of your organs!
– I got the distinct impression that if you ask 1000 scientists what aging is, how to cure it, and what a good practical proxy for health is, you’ll get 1000 different answers.