Brian Hanley is 64 years old, and if his experiments go as hoped, his life isn’t yet halfway over.
That’s a pretty large if—the idea of living for a century and a half is not inconceivable, though it is far-fetched at the moment. But what interests me about someone like Hanley, a mathematical biologist who splits his time between California and Idaho, is that, unlike most people, he lives as if it’s a real possibility.
Hanley’s path to super-longevity is still hypothetical. He develops gene therapies through Butterfly Sciences, a small company he founded, and has been testing a therapy on himself that he believes might extend his life span and, crucially, his “healthspan,” the period when he’s in good physical and mental shape. He hopes that future advances—among other difficulties, current gene therapies can’t modify a sufficiently large share of cells in someone’s body—could extend those two spans even further.
The gene therapy Hanley has tried is not proven to lengthen lives; he says he hasn’t experimented with it on anyone besides himself, and he does not have FDA approval for testing the therapy. Matt Kaeberlein, the director of the University of Washington’s Healthy Aging and Longevity Research Institute, told me that gene therapies may someday become a common tool for dramatically extending human lives, but that this is unlikely to happen anytime soon. It’s “theoretically possible,” Kaeberlein said, but “for now, it’s pure science fiction.”
Even if Hanley doesn’t achieve his goal of an extra-long lifetime, that goal itself invites questions: What would he do with all those additional decades? Would he be concerned about his future quality of life in the face of climate change, toxic politics, and maybe more pandemics? I recently asked Hanley about how he envisions the rest of his life, and the conversation that follows has been edited and condensed.
Joe Pinsker: How long do you expect to live?
Brian Hanley: I’m a scientist, so I’m not going to put a hard number on what I expect. My family line is pretty long-lived. I have an aunt who’s in her mid-90s now, and my father was, up until shortly before he died, going to a gym. I have no reason to think that I won’t hit 80 at least. I suspect I’ll live beyond that. I would put the outside limit at about 150 to 160 years.
Pinsker: If you’re able to live to 150, do you envision maintaining your current physical health and quality of life from now until then?
Hanley: Yes, that’s one of the objects of this. Life span without healthspan is not something I’m interested in doing.
Pinsker: And if you couldn’t have that, would you rather die at a more typical age?
Hanley: Well, I don’t think I would have a choice. [Laughs.] We’re programmed to die.
Pinsker: Why do you want to live to 150, and what would you plan on doing with that “extra” time?
Hanley: Well, I’m an oddball in this area, because most of the people I meet in the longevity community are freaked out about dying—that’s their biggest motivation. But I don’t live terrified of dying. My orientation is to have more time for things that are beneficial to the world. To some degree, there’s an ouroboros [quality] here, because one of the things I need more time for is to do the things that’ll give me more time.
Pinsker: What would you be most excited about witnessing in the further-out future?
Hanley: Oh, I would like to see Mars—it would be really interesting to be part of that settlement and try to make that work. Also, I’d be really curious to see what happens between now and then, socially. If you look back 100 years, we’ve had a lot of change. Would I be as much of an anachronism in 2100 as my grandfather would be today?
And what’s the climate and weather going to be like? I think it’s going to be pretty wild.
Pinsker: Yeah, do you think your life would be affected by climate change?
Hanley: Oh, absolutely. It already is. The fires in California—those are new, and they’re moving up to Idaho too. [Last] summer was essentially a lost summer here in the Coeur d’Alene area because of the smoke. You couldn’t go out and do stuff.
So it already is. I accept a high probability that weather and climate will be the cause of my death, either directly, like a tornado or a typhoon or fire, or indirectly, like crops failing.
Pinsker: Sometimes the world feels like everything’s going to hell, not just because of climate change—there’s the pandemic, the toxic political environment. Have those things made you have second thoughts about wanting to live a long time?
Hanley: Not a lot, no. The past has not been pleasant either. You know, we had Jim Crow, we had World War II—we had the threat of losing to the Third Reich. So I guess I just don't register that as being a reason not to live for a long time. Things have always been hard.
Pinsker: Do you see other people who want to live a long time grappling with these concerns?
Hanley: No. A few of the people I know of who are involved in longevity have thought about the social implications of people living a long time, but pretty much it’s a bunch of people who want to have a life that’s comfortable, like the one that they’ve had—extend that, but make it better.
Pinsker: What social implications are you referring to?
Hanley: Elon [Musk] recently said something to the effect that people don’t typically change their mind once they grow up. Some people do, but the average person doesn’t. Do we want to freeze society and drag along a bunch of people who won’t change their mind? If everybody from 1925 who was in the Ku Klux Klan, which was really popular—that year, 30,000 of them marched in Washington, D.C.—if those people were still alive now, would we be what we are now? I don’t think so.
And then there’s the question of why somebody should live a long time and whether someone is contributing to society. I mean, how old are you?
Pinsker: I’m 30.
Hanley: So by the time you’re 60, would you want to have a population of people in their 120s and 130s who have been basically retired, playing golf or whatever for that time, and collecting Social Security, which to some degree you would be paying for? This could result in some serious fracturing in society.
Pinsker: I wonder how you think about the future of your own career. How many hours would you estimate you work per week right now?
Hanley: 70 to 80.
Pinsker: And if you live to 150, how long do you think you could keep up that pace?
Hanley: I can’t say for sure, but it’s getting progressively weirder to be out of sync with my age group. I have friends who are like, “When are you going to retire? Let’s do things together.” And that’s not my intent. My orientation to work is: I’m here for a reason, and I’m doing things.
I’m reminded of when I was 30, living in Ann Arbor, and at a party I met this really cool woman from Russia who was in her 90s. She was such a kick—she had been trained by Stan Grof in LSD psychotherapy. And I asked her once at one of these parties, “So why don’t you hang out with people your own age?” And she goes, “Have you talked to them? Trust me—it’s boring.” So who knows; I might end up like that.
Pinsker: So it sounds like you would plan on working for a while. But if more people live longer, do you think they’d have to keep working, because they couldn’t afford not to?
Hanley: Yeah, I think it’s something that will be necessary for a long life span, for most people. On the other hand, you’ll have the energy for it. And if you don’t have the energy for it, then what’s the point? The last thing you want is 100 million senescent people who are 130, hanging on, sitting in a wheelchair.
Pinsker: Does the possibility that your life might last a really long time change your experience of the present moment? Is there any less urgency to get everything done immediately and take things more slowly?
Hanley: I’m not that kind of person—I have a feeling that things need to happen to make the world livable for most people in the future. So I don’t have that sense that I have more time.
I would say the main thing it does is lengthen your time horizon. I’ve talked to people who are my age [about the climate] who are like, “Why should I care? I’m going to be dead—let them deal with it.” But me, I’m not thinking that I necessarily won’t see those things. Sometimes I look back and it’s like, my generation really fucked some things up, bad—everything from student loans to the climate. So I want to try and change [things].