At first glance, one might assume that Peter Ward’s “The Price of Immortality: The Race to Live Forever” is yet another book promising secrets to regain youth, restore health, and outlive those who lack the knowledge or willpower to cheat time. But this is no self-help book. Instead, it evaluates with a journalist’s eye our best attempts at life extension, the drama and personalities of the people who surround them, and whether immortality is something humankind should be striving for at all.
In his lively tour of longevity science and pseudoscience, Ward, a British reporter, discovers that researchers are largely not as interested in immortality per se as much as in helping us live fulfilling, active lives until our final day. And while some immortalists hope the culmination of this effort will eventually lead us to never finding that day, Ward leaves the question open.
He begins at the Church of Perpetual Life, a congregation of people who, instead of seeking paradise after death, would rather avoid their demise altogether. There, Ward meets Neal VanDeRee, the church’s pastor, who practices intermittent fasting and envisions a future in which biotechnology advances faster than our bodies break down.
VanDeRee is working to reach what he and other immortalists call “escape velocity” by extending their lives until biotechnology progresses fast enough to keep them alive forever. Another immortalist, Aubrey de Grey, sees this moment as surprisingly close — within 20 to 30 years, or maybe even sooner. It’s quite a claim, but is it possible? “Either we’ll discover we can make people healthy for longer but our lifespan is quite set, as most gerontologists believe, or de Grey’s longevity escape velocity will be proven correct,” Ward writes, never quite telling us which future he is betting on.
Instead, he weighs products, promises, and scientific advances on their relative likelihood of getting us there. One strategy is cryonics, the process of freezing a body or brain to be revived in the future. For $28,000 to $200,000, adherents attempt to buy time until the technologies of a more advanced civilization catch up.
The tumultuous history of the cryonics movement is fascinating, and Ward devotes three chapters to describing the successes, failures, and squabbles of its proponents. Cryonics was inspired in part by pulp science fiction, with a botched attempt in 1965, followed by more than a dozen more. Ward details the tribulations of these early years, including one lost dead body, others crammed together and decomposing, and a police raid looking for a hidden head. Even today, cryonics is unregulated and ripe for fraud, and is difficult to sustain itself financially. After surveying the hits and misses, Ward concludes that “There are a lot of reasons to believe cryonics will ultimately fail.”
The book also probes the efforts of Silicon Valley investors and billionaires, and their promises of popular aging cures. These include infusions of blood from the bodies of the young, vitamins and supplements, drastic calorie restriction, and even a supposedly youth-restoring molecule found in red wine. None seem hugely promising to Ward.
The book is full of examples in which enticing early science is hijacked by the impatient or greedy. “In the vacuum between scientific theory, discovery, and real-world solutions, a familiar crowd of con artists and fraudsters have emerged to take advantage of those seeking never-ending life,” Ward writes.
In the potentially useful category, Ward describes research into cell regeneration, gene therapy, and cellular aging. He finds the science behind stem-cell therapies in particular to be “some of the most exciting in medical technology.” By exploring how stem cells — essentially the body’s building blocks, which develop into cells with specialized functions — develop and age, scientists hope to slow or even stop aging, but Sean Morrison, former president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, puts the potential on par with what we can already achieve through a healthy lifestyle. “There’s no evidence that any kind of stem cell therapy available to humans would lengthen a healthy person’s lifespan,” Morrison tells Ward.
Ward describes research into cell regeneration, gene therapy, and cellular aging, and finds the science behind stem-cell therapies in particular to be “some of the most exciting in medical technology.”
But that hasn’t slowed a flood of unproven treatments promoted by people like life-extension influencer and self-proclaimed “biohacker” Dave Asprey. These often involve injecting stem cells into the body, which according to Asprey’s website, “notice” where they are needed, go there, and fix things. Or something. Ward describes stem cell therapies as “alarmingly deregulated,” allowing fake and dangerous clinics to offer treatments that “amount to no more than snake oil.”
As for other potential solutions to aging, Ward writes: “Over the course of my conversations with immortalists and during the talks I’d attended, two major topics were consistently brought up in an attempt to fill the major gaps on the path to immortality. One was nanotechnology. The other was uploading the human brain to a computer.”
Nanotechnology — an interdisciplinary field that explores the unique properties of materials when they are as small as a few hundred atoms — has helped produce effective Covid-19 vaccines and led to localized therapies in which injected nanomaterials deliver substances that fight diseases like cancer directly to a tumor, or the brain, instead of flooding the entire body. Once again, Ward seems dubious. If this seems more like the future of health care than immortality, that’s because Ward makes it clear that it is.
If we can’t beat our biology, there’s always “digital immortality,” a kind of silicon cryonics intended to create a digitized version of consciousness that can be uploaded into a synthetic body or exist in a purely digital form. The logic goes like this: If our consciousness is housed in our brains, and our brains are biological computers, sufficiently advanced computers should be able to replicate them. Yet at the moment we possess neither a sufficient understanding of the brain nor the processing power to scan and replicate it.
“Over the course of my conversations with immortalists and during the talks I’d attended, two major topics were consistently brought up in an attempt to fill the major gaps on the path to immortality,” Ward writes. “One was nanotechnology. The other was uploading the human brain to a computer.”
“The task is incredibly difficult, but theoretically not impossible,” Ward finds, citing 2019 research in which scientists scanned a piece of mouse brain roughly the size of a grain of salt: It took five transmission electron microscopes running continuously for five months to finish the job.
By the end, Ward comes to question our obsession with living forever, and who it’s really for. “All the benefits we could enjoy by rolling out anti-aging technology relies on one of the most corrupt systems in the world — American health care,” he writes, noting that the wealthiest Americans can already expect to live up to 15 years longer than the poorest. And he wonders about the ultimate payoff. “As more people lived longer and hoarded more resources, the opportunities for younger generations would continue to shrink,” he predicts.
What’s worse, he writes, is if we don’t manage to solve the far more pressing problems of climate change, economic inequality, systemic racism, and childhood poverty, our more likely future will be a living hell. “The prospect of immortality speaks to something deep within the human instinct to survive, and for the first time in the history of the species, science has offered a glimmer of hope,” he concludes. “But suffering is so much worse than dying.”
Jenny Morber works a freelance science journalist on an island near Seattle. Her work has appeared in Popular Science, Discover, Glamour, and National Geographic, among other publications.