Silicon Valley keeps trying to “cure” death. It should fix its own ageism instead, says activist Ashton Applewhite.
“Aging is not a disease, otherwise living would be a disease, but you can’t make money off satisfaction,” Applewhite says.
Silicon Valley has an unhealthy fetish: As the first billionaires of the
Silicon Valley has an unhealthy fetish: As the first billionaires of the personal computer era have hit middle age, some of them have begun pouring money into dubious projects to keep them young, or possibly even stop death.
“Ageism is the first form of discrimination that many white men encounter, so I’m eager for some of those guys to get woke,” anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite said on the latest episode of Recode Decode.
Applewhite’s new book, “This Chair Rocks,” bills itself as a “Manifesto Against Ageism.” She told Recode’s Kara Swisher that she supports the idea of extending “healthspan” — to wit, staying as healthy as possible until we die — but she’s deeply skeptical of people trying to dramatically extend their lifespan.
“Suppose you could live forever or live to be 200?” she asked. “Do you want to age in a world that treats you like a second-class citizen? I don’t.”
The more worthy goal, she explained on the new podcast, is using this moment to examine how tech culture has unfairly enshrined youth as the ideal, and how that bias intersects with other forms of discrimination. For example, if it becomes a priority to design mapping apps that can increase the font size of street names, then that will help visually impaired people of all ages, not just older users whose eyesight has declined.
And in addition to fixing our apps, Applewhite said we also need to fix our own deeply ingrained beliefs about what getting older, and looking older, means.
“Maybe Peter Thiel will slip the noose, but most of us slow down,” she said. “And when we hold up as the ideal this idea that aging well means basically, somewhere north of middle age, starting to work really hard to not age ... To look and act like younger versions of ourselves, to stop the clock, it sets us up to fail. It pits us against each other. It fills you with dread because you know sooner or later, the umpteenth Botox, you’re going to start looking scary, or something isn’t going to work.”
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Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Ashton.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor-at-large of Recode. You may know me as someone who’s looking forward to reaching the age where I can call people “whippersnappers,” but in my spare time I talk tech and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media Podcast Network.
Today in the red chair is Ashton Applewhite, a writer and activist who’s been a really important voice speaking out against age discrimination in our society, which is a big problem here in Silicon Valley. Now she’s the author of a new book called This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. Ashton, welcome to Recode Decode.
Ashton Applewhite: Thank you.
How did you get to this topic? Let’s talk a little bit about your background and how you moved to doing this and I want to understand what This Chair Rocks ... You’re talking about a rocking chair, right?
Yeah, I mean, it’s a spoof on that, really.
Got it. So talk a little bit about your background and how you got to be in this area.
Well, my background has never made any sense. I back into everything. But I started thinking about this because I was afraid of getting old about 12 years ago when I was 55, and if you had told me then that I would become fascinated by aging, I would have said, “Why do I want to spend my time thinking about something so sad and depressing?”
What happened was I started looking into longevity and realized in about two seconds how much of what I simply assumed it would be like to be really old was way off base or was not nuanced enough or just flat-out wrong, so I became obsessed with the question of why so few people know these things.
Why did you become scared? What was it? I mean, it’s societally scary but ...
That’s why. I am not a Pollyanna about aging. There are real things to worry about but there are only two inevitable bad things about getting older: People you’ve known all your life are going to die and some part of your body is going to fall apart. But not all your body and not all your friends, and we never hear the other side of the story. So I was deeply skeptical going in but all these positive data points, I’ve started calling them a realistic view of aging, not even a positive view of aging, as a fact-based counterpoint to the predominant narrative of aging as loss and decline alone.
So let’s talk about the predominant narrative that exists. I do want to get into Silicon Valley because it sort of ... the young eats its old here, essentially, but not just people, but companies and everything else. So let’s talk a little bit about what the predominant view is right now and why it is that way.
Well, the predominant view, I would say, is that aging ... you know, aging is not just something annoying old people and parents do, it is a process we embark on the day we’re born but that somewhere really young ... I mean in Silicon Valley, guys, skilled white men in their 30s, are getting Botoxed and hair plugged before key interviews.
We’ll get into that, but talk about what the narrative is right now.
The narrative, I think, is just that it is one of loss. Whereas, if you sit up and look around at the older people around you, I have never met anyone who actually wants to be any younger because we know that our years are what make us us. We know that age brings us confidence and experience, etc., etc., so let’s ...
I’m sorry, I want to know why the narrative is in place. That’s what I’m asking.
Oh, okay. Why is the narrative entirely one of decline? Well, put simply, if aging is framed as a problem, we can be persuaded to buy stuff to “fix it” or “stop it,” air quotes around that. If the natural physical changes and cognitive changes that accompany aging ... physical changes are inevitable, cognitive are not ... if they’re framed as disease, pathologized, then we can be persuaded to buy stuff to “fix it” or “cure it.”
Aging is not a disease, otherwise living would be a disease, but you can’t make money off satisfaction. So there’s a multibillion dollar anti-aging skin care industry, a trillion dollar pharmaceutical industry that says, “Oh, if you can’t remember the name of that movie you saw, you have mild cognitive impairment and you’d better buy this game or take this drug.”
Where does that come from in our society, the idea? It’s not Eskimos and ice floes, but where does it actually come from? And is it different in other parts of the world?
I think it comes from a hypercapitalist society. No one makes money off satisfaction. We see that from the body acceptance movement. If you look down at your fat stomach and say, “I’m good with this,” there’s a lot of diet places that don’t make money. It also comes from pop culture — from which older people are almost completely missing — this fetishization of the young, the thin, and the blond. Of course, we export pop culture and tech. We’re dead center in tech, which is also a very, very youthful ethos with this idea that older people can’t use technology, can’t learn new things. Not one of those stereotypes is true.
When you layer that stuff on, when you’re doing this, it is part of culture, but how do you then begin to turn it around? You would say you started to do this ... so you were scared yourself of this very thing you’ve been taught to be scared of, right?
And what were your fears? What were your actual fears?
Well, I would say probably my biggest fear was of cognitive decline.
Right, couldn’t remember stuff.
Yes, CRS, Can’t Remember Shit. About 20 percent of the population escapes cognitive decline entirely. We all know some of those really sharp 90-year-olds. Most of the rest of us are going to end up in the middle with some loss of speed and, in short, that thing in the memory where you can’t remember the name of the movie you saw, but that’s as far as it goes.
It’s not that Alzheimer’s isn’t terrifying. It’s not that it’s not a big public health issue, but no one talks about the fact that Alzheimer’s rates are dropping fast and the real epidemic is anxiety over memory loss and these become very damaging self-fulling prophecies. If you can’t remember the name of the movie and your thoughts go instantly to, “Oh crap, I’m getting Alzheimer’s,” rather than, “You know, this is annoying but I’m going to remember that name in five minutes,” and it’s not a sign of incipient dementia. We respond very differently and those stereotypes damage our health and damage our perception, our place in the world.
So it’s cognitive decline and physical decline.
The physical decline is inevitable. Some part of your body is going to fall apart. One thing tech has brought us is, they call them age suits, you put them on and they weight down your feet and they blur your vision and they alter your balance. Those are deceptive because there is no one to whom all of those things happen. They use those to sell long-term care insurance. “You better buy up now before all these things happen.”
Again, it’s not that the fears aren’t real. Some part of your body is going to fail you, but just about everyone can continue to do the things that matter the most to them or some version of it. If your identity hinges on skiing Black Diamonds, you may have to give that up. If you ski into a tree, you may have to give it up entirely, but you probably can keep skiing. Same with sex. If your idea of sex is what it was at 20, especially for men, for obvious reasons, you’re going to be disappointed when it changes. I’m not saying these changes are easy, but if you can accept a more whole body, slower, more playful version of sex, which is typically better sex for women, then you can continue to have satisfying sex for as long as you want to.
So what got you to write this idea? Talk about what your manifesto means. Talk about the elements of your manifesto.
Sure. Well, a manifesto is a call for social action because we really need a broad-based grassroots movement. I think the best analogy is the women’s movement, which was catalyzed by consciousness raising. Women came together and realized that what they’d been thinking of as personal problems, not getting hired or getting harassed, were widely shared political problems.
That’s what we need to do around aging, too, because we’re really talking about the place of older people in society compared to the role of women, although I do want to point out, ageism affects younger people, too, any judgment about people on the basis of age. The way it is now, we think if we can’t open the damn bottle, or there’s no railing, or we made the tragic mistake of somehow allowing wrinkles to develop, that we failed. Why should aging be something to fail at?
We need to come together, we need to compare notes and we need to see that the way aging is socially constructed, which means how we make up our idea, can change and needs to change just the way our view of what women were capable of in society has radically changed in the last 50 years.
Radically changed but still problematic.
We have a long way to go. A lot of people say ageism is the last socially acceptable prejudice. I used to be one of them. I don’t say that anymore because we still have so far to go on so many prejudices, but this is a new idea.
It is. People can’t do fat jokes anymore, they can’t do ... You have to take it seriously, these kinds of things, and ageism is something people don’t do, for sure.
They don’t and we make really super-deprecating jokes about ourselves, so the first, most difficult step is to look at our own age bias. We are all ageist, I think, and say ageist stuff. Young people forget something and I’m like, “Aha, see, they can’t remember anything either.” Once we start to see bias, then you start to see it everywhere and that is really liberating. That’s like a genie coming out of the bottle because once you start to see it in society, you realize, “Oh, this is around me. It’s built into the world. It’s reinforced and we can, again, come together and do something about it.”
Right, so talk about that, that you’re saying it’s a manifesto against … ageism.
It’s a big topic, obviously. I started writing it out here in Oakland, actually, at my friend’s house and just put on a post-it or a postcard or an index card every smart idea I had come across and tried to organize it. So there’s an introduction that explains how I came to understand it. The more I thought about it, the more obvious it was that ageism is built deeply into our social and capitalist system and that its undoing is going to require political upheaval. No one gives up power without a struggle. I think we see that from backlash against the #MeToo movement with the obvious example of the appointment to the Supreme Court of someone with a record hostile to women’s rights.
So I go on to explain what ageism is and how it came to be. Then I talk about ageism in all these different domains, in your identity, in your sexuality, in the workforce, in health care, how it affects our end-of-life discourse. My favorite chapter is called “The Independence Trap.” When I rule the world I’m going to erase all the times independence occurs in this discourse because no one is ever independent and we live in a society where it’s ... I think it’s especially American, the lone cowboy, the dude who doesn’t ask for help ever. We all need help all the way along. We should be able to do so freely and without shame all along the life course.
All right. When you’re talking about this idea of a manifesto, it’s shifting, so where do you start the change? Where does it have to begin when you’re doing this?
Between our ears.
Meaning think about your own attitudes towards age and aging. One of the many ideas that seemed totally impossible when I first encountered it was the idea that older people tend to be the worst ageists of all. Again, it’s not just a young-person problem, but we are barraged with these awful anti-aging messages starting with children’s books and unless we stop the question ...
Give me an example.
Oh, the passive knitting granny. A benevolent stereotype is still a stereotype. Or Grampa Simpson, the crankity get-off-my-lawn crotchety guy.
He’s funny, though.
These horrible greeting cards, they can be funny as shit, but discrimination is not funny and when you buy a greeting card that mocks or denies your age or say, “Oh well, of course I can’t, I’m too old to do X or Y.”
Really good starting point is to think about how you use the words “old” and “young.” People say all the time, “I don’t feel old,” and they’re telling the truth, but what they really mean is that they don’t feel invisible, or they don’t feel incompetent, and those are things we feel at every point in our life. I don’t know about you, but [I felt] my most ugly and least competent as an adolescent. So decouple the word “young” from “insert good thing,” energetic, sexy, whatever, and “old” from its opposite.
I don’t know anybody’s age. I never pay attention to anybody’s age, ever. I don’t even know how old people are. I was with someone the other day and they were like, “Don’t you know how old I am?” I’m like, “No, I don’t care. I don’t care what your age is.”
But that makes you unusual.
Yes, it is. I always don’t know people’s age. I think I do but I don’t.
We ask people’s age out of habit.
Eric — I don’t even want to know how old you are. I have no idea how old you are.
It functions as a useful shorthand. But one place I get consistent pushback from is journalists because I make the case that we should leave age out of stories, as you do, which is fantastic. They go, “No, no, no, it’s part of the who, what, when, why, where of journalism.” Well, race used to be part of that, too, and we took it out for exactly that reason.
Do you know I have seven birthdays on the internet? All different.
How’d you do that?
I just put them up.
Oh, that’s a good idea.
Exactly, I’m many ages, they’re around the same age, but they’re many. I’m not doing it out of ego.
But that confusion is great, just like confusion around gender, confusion ...
No, people know I’m a lady but ...
If you can’t jump to that conclusion that the person who got the cat out of the tree was 40, or that the person who did that was a straight guy or whatever, that causes us to interrogate our preconceived notions, and that’s a better way to be in our mixy-uppy world.
Yeah, absolutely. I do know when someone’s like 8 or something like that.
Well, children will assure you that they are older than the 7-year-old in the corner.
That’s a fair point, that’s a fair point. Let’s talk about Silicon Valley and the mythology around youth and discovery and youth in tech. You’re married to someone who’s in tech and ...
Well, we’re not married but we’ve been together a long time, he would say he’s not in tech, but he’s a publisher of electronic stuff, so yes, definitely his world.
So, talk a little bit about tech, because tech is one place where they sort of fetishize youth.
They sure do.
And they also allow people to stay younger longer than they’re young, like one of the things I always say about Mark Zuckerberg, they’re like, “Oh, he’s just a kid.” I was like, “No, he’s a parent of two children, he’s over 30, he’s an adult.” Like, stop fetishizing that he’s a ... and this whole idea of sort of this Peter Pan mentality of lost boys and everything else, it’s really very severe in tech more than other places.
It is, and let’s not forget the evil pairing with sexism as well. I mean, Zuckerberg famously said, and I am dying … I am waiting for the moment when it comes back to bite him in the ass, “young people are just smarter.” Which was honestly ...
Well, maybe that’s what’s going on now.
It was an ignorant thing to say, and my guess is ... you know he’s obviously a smart guy, my guess is he might already be wise enough to know that that was a dumb thing to say, and it’s going to come back and bite him. I think one of the interesting things about ...
That was an astonishing quote, I remember that I was like, “Are you kidding me?”
”Really?” Right, it’s such blind arrogance, privilege, whiteness, maleness, wealth, etc., etc. I mean, it is ...
But it’s a prevailing attitude, I don’t think he was ... at least he was expressing what already existed.
Well, ageism is the first form of discrimination that many white men encounter, so I’m eager for some of those guys to get woke. I remember when it sort of bubbled forth was an article in Technology Review, three or four years ago, I don’t know if you saw it, which was sort of an expose of sorts, and the quote in it that stuck with me, they were quoting a cosmetic surgeon who does Botox and stuff and he said he was about to plump up a guy in his 30s who said, “I have a key interview, and I can’t look like I have a wife and a mortgage and two young kids.” What does it say about our society that looking like you have two young kids and a mortgage disqualifies you from employment? I mean, that’s grotesque.
Right, right, why do you think it is in tech that they ... because you know, if you think of tech you think of Einstein, and he does not look young, let’s just be honest, when he was 20 he looks 112.
112, that’s ageist, we can’t say that.
I understand that.
Of course you do.
You know what I mean, he was looked up to as one of the great inventors, a lot of the inventors were older.
Hello, who invented the internet?
Right, an older person.
And it’s just as ageist ... I mean, I have a younger friend who goes to a lot of these conferences where —they’re around “age land” — and he’s young and he’s male, so 50 people ask him if he can fix their computers as he walks through the room, that’s ageist and sexist too.
All right, but how did it stick in tech, because all the inventors were not apparently young-looking.
My guess, and it is a guess, is that the rate of change in tech is so great, and I have to remind people that if you were a farmer, you had to learn how to go from using a plow to using a tractor, to using the supercomputers that are tractors. There is this idea of a digital divide that I think is pretty bogus too, you know, having grown up playing video games does not qualify you to be a better coder or more adept in this world.
I think you have fast-growing industries where young, white, and Asian men are prioritized in the educational system and then tend to hire people who look like them, the phrase is “culture fit,” it’s hard to break out of that bubble but as we know, everyone suffers when companies are not diverse. If this kind of oppression is affecting skilled white men in their 30s, imagine the effects further down the food chain, ageism intersects with sexism, women in the work world at large in the US stop being promoted at age 32, and it is compounded of course by race and by class, so it becomes increasingly harder to get a job in tech.
I remember years ago, I was in LA and this friend of my son’s was ... Snapchat came up, I guess it was, and I just assumed, totally ageist of me, but because he was a young guy, he knew all about this. And he was like, “I don’t know what Snapchat is.” There are families now with siblings where one sibling a few years apart in age from another uses a different set of social media tools. And, we olders, I mean I’m not technophobic, I’m not technophilic, but it is, I do think, incumbent ...
Yeah I’m both, I’m schitzy about it. You know, I had to learn to be on Twitter, which I’ve actually come to love, Instagram I’m still clumsy, but if feeding your family depends on mastering a supersonic tractor or nuclear fusion, you will learn how to do it. The skills we need, I had to develop a social media presence because I’m self-published, I don’t have affiliations and credentials and it’s become fantastically useful to me. We learn what we need to do. When older people are forced out of the workplace, and it is worse for women and worse for women of color, then they are deprived access to this stuff and these critical tools and low employment and income, and the personal and economic consequences are devastating.
So, talk about that idea, that you said it’s the first place white men get discriminated against, talk about that a little bit.
Well, think about it, if you’re coddled along, I mean, I think maybe Mark Zuckerberg and his peers really think it’s a meritocracy out there, but it is not, obviously, as anyone with a vagina knows. And ableism, disability, that is a really huge hurdle to getting a job anywhere, and no one talks about the intersection between ageism and ableism.
The fact is we know that diverse workplaces work better. We know that diverse companies work better, and to have to say things like ... you know, I ask people, “What do you think of as criteria for diversity?” And everyone says, “Gender and race, blah blah blah.” Not too many people say age yet, but when I say, “How about age?” No one says, “That’s a dumb idea.” Or, “Let me get back to you.”
So I think my kids’ generation, they’re millennials, the idea of intersectionality, the idea that these forms of oppression intersect and reinforce each other, is very close to the surface and that hitching age to the intersectionality sled, if you will, is a much smaller ask than it was to say, 60 years ago, “You know, a woman could run a huge company as well as a man.”
Right, but you still see pushback on those things. One of the things that’s interesting is they don’t mention age in that group, a lot of people have urged me to talk more about the issue.
Well, you’ve got to talk about it.
And there’s been several books about it, there’s a lot of lawsuits recently around age, there’s an obvious bias that happens, you can’t pick people at most of these companies that are very old, there’s just not, even at the top there’s older people, but not old. And again, it’s a new industry too, this is an industry that you have the founders running them and they were young when they started.
It’ll be interesting to see how that changes.
Yeah, yeah, Bill Gates is super old comparatively.
Ancient, comparatively. So with these lawsuits anyway, how do you then change the attitude in tech to change that?
I think we change it in tech the way we change it everywhere, I do think that privileged straight white men, they are the most privileged members of society — I’m starting to get pushback, I’m being called sexist and racist for saying that, so that’s ...
They’re the victims, you know.
I know I’m getting somewhere.
Playing the victims, it’s tough.
It’s tough, it’s tough to be a guy. But I think what an uncomfortable reckoning, and I’m not being snarky at all, you have to realize, “Oh crap, I didn’t get where I got on my brains alone.” But I think the awareness that there are these intersecting forms of prejudice is closer to the surface, I think they must have girlfriends or boyfriends who are helping to bring that awareness home, that it’s in the culture. So I think it’s closer.
And there is also, of course, the business case to be made. I mean, not only are key industries, I don’t think tech is one of them, but where they are going to experience a shortage of good workers as olders either retire or are forced out of the workplace, and if you have a diverse client base, age is a criterion for diversity. It’s not that old people only sell stuff to old people, and PS, if you look at the popular culture, you would think that olders, all we did was take meds and go on cruises. When of course, older people do exactly the same things that younger people do, maybe not the same versions of them, but it is sort of insane to say that experience is not a liability.
And not one of the stereotypes used to justify discrimination against older workers is true, the not creative thing, it’s being in the same job for 30 years that makes you not creative.
One of the things that’s thought of is they’re making products that are focused on young people, the products are not focused on a wider range of people.
I would say the issue there is product design. Older people like to play games, older people need to figure out the apps so they can get in the parking garage. I mean, the issue really with technology is more a class issue than an age issue, smartphone adoption graphs to socioeconomic status more than it does to age.
So, indeed, it is really important to have things with an interface ... I mean, my eyes are not what they used to be, although since I had cataract surgery, I’m not wearing glasses for the first time in my life. So it’s double-edged, but when you zoom in on the Maps app, the name of the street doesn’t get bigger, stuff like that would be really great. Let’s, back to ableism, there are visually impaired people of all ages. Everything we do could make the world a better place to be old in, make it a better place to have a family, to have a disability, to be from somewhere else.
Yeah, I think it’s thoughtlessness in terms of, the things that are designed are designed in a thoughtless manner.
But you know, what are those things in theory that young people need apps for that old people don’t, dating? Guess what, older people date too, older people want to find places, want to look up a restaurant.
It’s proximity. If you don’t have proximity around you, meaning you’re not near older people, you’re not near people of color, you’re not near women, your proximity determines a lot of your decision-making to anything.
Right, and that’s the problem with culture fit, is the tendency — which is human — to gravitate to people who look like us. But one of the most — back to things that you could do — is when you get to a social event, don’t make a beeline for people your own age. Because the most important component of a good old age is not how healthy you are, or how wealthy you are, it’s whether you have a robust social network. And back to the only other inevitable bad thing about aging, people you’ve known all your life are going to die, it’s really important to have friends of all ages.
You need to know some young people if you’re older.
Yeah, you need young people if you’re older, you need older people if you’re younger, I think ... I mean, one of my many plans for in my free time, haha, is I have a consciousness-raising guide on my website called, “Who me, ageist?” Free download. And I want to make one for women, and the name I’m working with is, “You will look like us,” to sort of skewer the idea that the most important thing about us is how we look.
I don’t love that name because it suggests that the knowledge comes from olders down to youngers, when in fact it’s always a two-way exchange, but if more younger women knew older women who are in their full power, as so many of us are, they would be less afraid of aging and stop wasting so much time worrying about it, and we older women would be reminded of how hard it is to be 20 and 30 and be more generous.
You know, although there’s some turn that some women make that they become a badass, which is interesting, you know?
Yeah. A lot of us ... It’s hugely freeing.
Yeah, it’s interesting. You can be either ... You can be. It’s really fascinating.
We’re here with Ashton Applewhite. She is the author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. One of the things that Silicon Valley is obsessed with is not dying, so there’s all kinds of people who, as they’re getting slightly older — and they’re not very old, most of these founders, but they’re in their 30s, 40s, moving into the 50s — and many of them are investing in all kinds of things to not die. To deal with senescence.
Good luck with that.
There’s all kinds of research into that. There’s the jokes about the blood boys and things like that. It seems like there’s a lot of investments in this area.
There are. People ...
What do you think of that?
I think we need much much much more research into the basic biology of aging. It’s underfunded, as is almost everything to do with aging, despite the fact that population is this massive global permanent demographic trend. Research into ... I don’t like to call it “longevity science,” I call it “immortality science” because, exactly as you said, it’s not about living longer, it’s about not dying.
Not dying, yup.
Or dying slower.
All the people who are investing money in this are ... we’re back to wealthy white men again.
Somewhere, coincidentally ...
I’ll take that from them, but go ahead.
It would be fantastic if we could delay aging, if we could understand more about what does go on with the body. But I think it’s delusory. We don’t even understand the basic biology of the cell. I also think that the social and political component is essential.
Suppose you could live forever or live to be 200? Do you want to age in a world that treats you like a second-class citizen? I don’t. Right? If I’m super-rich, sure, I can purchase the supports that maybe buy me friends, buy me the illusion of “independence,” in air quotes. But it’s not going to be available to most of us, and I think it’s going to be a very lonely life.
And lastly, philosophically, I don’t think it’s the right approach. We know from Greek myths and literature that tales of endless life do not end well. One of the things I learned very early on was about the U-curve of happiness.
That people are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of their lives. I was super-skeptical when I learned that.
So babies are thrilled? We don’t know.
And people who are much older, because ... an ageist idea I started out with was one of the awful things about getting old is clearly that as death gets closer, you must get more apprehensive. That’s not the way it works. The knowledge that time is short enables us to appreciate the present more. To live in the moment. Kids do it because they don’t know how to do anything else, and the very old do it. Fear of death diminishes with age. If you are busy eating grapefruit-sized bowls of pills every five minutes so that you don’t have to think about dying, you are clearly always preoccupied with moving that ball down the road. Unable ever to live in the present-
And we know-
That said, there’s enormous amounts of investment, and some of it’s fascinating. Some of it’s fascinating, the ideas or stuff at the Salk Institute. There’s stuff around meditation, there’s stuff around all kinds of things that ... One of the people who’s doing a lot of investing has explained it to me, that it’s not so much ... it’s lengthening life if you want and not being sick for the last part of your life.
Down with that!
But ending this sickness, a part of it.
It’s not inevitable-
You can be very healthy until the day you die.
Great. The goal of public health is to extend possibly lifespan, but very definitely healthspan.
Healthspan, yeah, that’s a good way of putting-
Right, and that is absolutely a …
Which I like.
Yeah, fantastically commendable objective. Let’s learn more about what happens to the body and what we can do to slow the process of aging. But end it? Mm-mm. One thing that I love pointing out is all the research that shows how attitudes to aging affect how our minds and bodies function at the cellular level. So it’s not either-or, right? But of course, a pill, “Buy this pill and you can live forever” is a lot more exciting than, “Take these 10 pills, meditate for an hour and exercise for an hour, and you can live healthier but not live forever.”
Of course people are going to click on the “live forever” button. People with more realistic attitudes towards aging ... I used to say “more positive” but what it really means is you see the other side of the story ... live longer, seven and a half years longer. They recover more quickly from severe disability. They walk faster. The latest study out of Yale, this is blue chip science and it’s all findable on my blog or in the book, is that having a realistic attitude towards aging confers protection against Alzheimer’s even in people with the gene that predisposes them to the disease.
The idea is that these attitudes serve as a buffer against stress and anxiety around aging which is the result of living in an ageist society. So that’s why I’m pushing a social movement that challenges that dominant narrative with the science and with the evidence that we all see when we lift up our heads and look around us at the older people around us.
But again, I do see a movement. I think there will be some really significant strides in anti-aging, and I don’t mean looking good or-
Let’s call it “pro-aging”.
Pro-aging, okay, pro-aging …
All right, I’ll call it pro-aging, that’s a fair point.
Aging is living.
Fair point, yeah.
Aging happens everyday. Dying is just what happens at the end of all that living. It is a discrete biological event.
You may look at me and think I’m old as fuck, but you don’t think I’m dying.
Right? So let’s call it a pro-
I was thinking neither of those things, but all right.
But let’s call it a pro-aging movement, which is really about living as healthily as possible for as long as possible.
But I do believe there’s going to be some very technological changes, including body parts, including not just Botox, but really serious-
I have a plastic cornea. I love it. If they invented some gunk I could put in my cartilage, I would do it tomorrow.
Right, because Botox looks bad.
Let’s do ... I know.
Don’t you think Botox is bad?
I don’t love it.
I just saw a VC with one. I was like, “No.”
I actually said, “What’s going on with your face?” And he was like, “What are you talking about?” I’m like, “Come on.”
And they know ... There are studies that show that-
Everyone was pretending.
If you can’t move your face-
Everyone was pretending that wasn’t happening.
You don’t look happy, you can’t look happy, and then it makes you-
Whatever, it never looks good.
This would look good on one person, who’s very wealthy.
It’s not a good idea, and again, it’s a remedy only available to the wealthy.
But serious, there are some serious stuff going on around that. It’s life-lengthening for sure and health-lengthening.
I would say, I would prefer that the discourse be about pro-aging, about healthspan, rather than anti-aging. Because we are aging, and the whole idea that your age should be a source of shame, that if you-
I think that will get it out of it, that you will be living ... So if one person-
Not if you’re just kicking the ball further down the road.
Actually one person, one VC was like, “I’m aiming to try to figure out a way to live 500 years.” And I was like, “Listen Methuselah, good to meet you, but it’s probably not going to ...” But it was interesting, the concept, because I think what was interesting behind it was we landed on the moon, we didn’t think we’d land on the moon. We fly, we didn’t think we’d fly. Is there ways to retard aging, I guess?
Slow it, yeah. Yeah.
I’m 100% down with that.
But end it or see aging as the enemy? Aging is a process-
No, it’s not an enemy.
... we embark on when we’re born.
I got it, it’s a process. But is there a way to stop it, like to actually ... or delay it? It’s just interesting.
But those are very key distinctions, and another point is that for a lot of ... everyone, I think, so far ... Maybe Peter Thiel will slip the noose, but most of us slow down. And when we hold up as the ideal this idea that aging well means basically, somewhere north of middle age, starting to work really hard to not age ... To look and act like younger versions of ourselves, to stop the clock, it sets us up to fail. It pits us against each other. It fills you with dread because you know sooner or later, the umpteenth Botox, you’re going to start looking scary, or something isn’t going to work.
It’s the first time.
As long as that is the objective, it’s rooted really in self-loathing, in denial of the fact that we are aging. And to slip that noose and to see, “Look, this thing is happening and there are things about it I don’t like, but it is also a source of growth and power” ... For lots of women, late life is the best time of all. Again, not to deny the scary stuff but to see both sides, and to try absolutely to live as healthily as possible for as long as we can. But to acknowledge also that things will change and things will slow, and that is not tragic.
One of the interesting things is, though, is that women do live longer than men. Quite a bit.
Quite a bit.
Mm-hmm. Yeah, we don’t know why.
Why do you think it is?
I think that’s an answer for cell biologists. We are sicker and we have less money. A possible reason is that, I mentioned before, the most important component of what we think of as a good old age is a strong social network. Women are better at creating, maintaining, those relationships. So that could be why.
There’s lots of reasons. It’s an interesting phenomenon, obviously, that people are studying, which is why they’re doing it so much. Lastly, if the idea ... if all this money goes into pro-aging-
Right, pro-aging. She rolled her eyes.
No, I just-
Okay, it’s going on the record.
Because what they’re doing is trying to stop aging, is what they’re trying to do.
Let’s slow it.
How do you look at Silicon Valley doing that when you ... because we’re talking to Silicon Valley people here, or tech people. Where do you think that comes from, the concept, those concepts?
Humanity 101. Fear of dying is human. We’re all born with it, we’re very afraid of dying as kids. Interestingly, fear of dying diminishes in late life, which is interesting to me. So the fact ... Ponce de León, the search for eternal youth, the fountain of youth. I think that’s an eternal quest. I’m not surprised that a lot of money is going into it, but I would like people to see it as a both/and proposition rather than, “Let’s not think about getting older because that’s awful and scary,” and pretend that’s not happening. Let’s age as healthily as we can, by all means, let’s invest billions into understanding better what happens to the body as it ages. But I would like to have a longer healthspan be the goal rather than-
So that’s what you would want from Silicon Valley or tech?
Absolutely, instead of eternal life. It’s the wrong goal.
Yeah, it’s also the plot of Twilight. Anyway, Ashton, it was great talking to you. Thank you for coming on the show. Ashton Applewhite’s book is called This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.