Ultra Wealthy software entrepreneur Bryan Johnson, now 45, wants to be 18 again. Or at least, he wants his organs to function like those of an 18-year-old, and he’s prepared to become a guinea pig for science in order to make his ambitions a reality. Some may groan and roll their eyes at yet another of the super-wealthy, looking to throw their millions at a problem money can’t solve. Even fame and riches aren’t enough for these people – they won’t even accept ageing like the rest of us.
Before you judge Johnson too harshly, there are a few factors that set what he’s doing apart in the category of rich people trying to buy their way to immortality. Firstly, most of what he’s doing is firmly based on legitimate science, which is more than can be said for many others. Johnson has a team of over 30 doctors and health experts monitoring his health and searching the scientific literature for any interventions that could potentially make him younger.
Secondly, his efforts have been largely successful according to the most commonly accepted metrics of biological age, which show an epigenetic age reduction of 5.1 years (more on exactly what that means later).
Thirdly, most of what Johnson is doing is relatively affordable. You may have heard of the 80-20 principle, which describes how in many cases, 80% of the results of one’s efforts can be attributed to just 20% of those efforts. This principle almost certainly applies to Johnson’s practices, all of which have been made publicly available to view alongside his health metrics (a document referred to as his blueprint). Though Johnson’s health is optimised to the extreme, most of the benefits are coming from a few simple interventions. Since the exact details of Johnson’s practices are already covered in detail in this document, let’s talk about some of the key elements of the blueprint and the science behind them. What is the 80:20 of Bryan Johnson’s routine, and which parts of it will yield you the greatest longevity benefits?
In Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, the Red Queen tells Alice that ‘it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place’. Though traditionally applied to natural selection, the Red Queen’s words also fit ageing well. It takes considerable effort simply to prevent the progression of the ageing process, let alone to reverse it. Thus, when we say that Bryan Johnson reduced his biological age by 5.1 years, it’s important to be clear about exactly what that means.
Biological age is a measure of how well the body’s cells, tissues and organs perform relative to the average. If your biological age is 30, your body operates similarly to that of a 30 year-old. The stated 5.1 years is based on several epigenetic clocks. Epigenetic clocks work by looking at the placement of molecular tags called methyl groups that are added to the DNA molecule. These tags influence the way genes are expressed and change in a predictable pattern throughout life. While these changes do seem to contribute to the ageing process, they are not the only contributors. Just because Johnson’s methylation age has decreased by 5 years, this doesn’t mean that he isn’t ageing in other ways (though many other biomarkers do also show significant improvement).
Finally, it should be noted that Bryan Johnson’s epigenetic age 2 years ago was 47, so already several years above his chronological age. With the exception of chronic diseases, it’s generally easier to address poorer than average health than to improve what is already better than average health. This means that Johnson’s reduction in epigenetic age is unlikely to be sustainable – at least not without the aid of experimental biotechnology. Remember, it takes effort just to stay in the same place.
Johnson has a daily intake of around 2000 Calories, compared to the approximate 2600 Calories required by a physically active 45 year-old male. This is a reduction in calorie intake of about 23%, which would qualify as a calorie restricted diet under most definitions. Calorie restriction (CR) refers to the practice of reducing calorie intake significantly without incurring malnutrition.
CR has been shown to extend lifespan and delay the onset of age-related diseases in a wide range of animal models, including yeast, worms, flies, rodents, and primates. Evidence suggests that CR can improve metabolic health, increase stress resistance, and decrease inflammation, among other benefits. This seems to be thanks to a variety of mechanisms:
In humans, studies have shown that CR can improve metabolic health and reduce risk factors for age-related diseases. However, more research is needed to fully understand the effects of CR in humans. Most randomised trials of calorie restriction don’t last more than a few years, so we don’t really know much about the long-term effects. It’s also important to stress that CR means reduced calorie intake without malnutrition. This means that one must still consume the appropriate ratio of different nutrients, which has been shown to vary according to age.
Johnson’s diet consists entirely of fruits, vegetables and nuts/seeds. By weight, roughly two thirds of what he eats are vegetables – mostly black lentils, broccoli and cauliflower. His diet includes small amounts of cocoa, decaffeinated coffee and red wine, but contains no alcohol or caffeine otherwise. There are also no animal products in his diet.
Once again, if you want to know the exact composition of Johnson’s diet, it’s all in the blueprint. It’s a very specific list that most people would probably find hard to follow, but the 80:20 rule is likely to be firmly in play here:
What about dietary composition in terms of different nutrients? This is a very hard question to answer with any precision and will depend on your age. This article discusses some of the more recent research.
Brian Johnson takes over 100 dietary supplements daily. Many human clinical trials suggest that certain supplements can reduce the risk of chronic age related disease. The unfortunate truth is that most of this evidence is inferior in both quantity and quality to that required for a clinically approved drug. This is especially true for supplements thought to target the mechanisms of ageing. NAD precursors for example, thought by many to be the most promising class of supplement for the purpose of slowing ageing, have so far only been studied in small clinical trials lasting short periods of time, and in most cases targeted at some form of chronic disease.
Even for supplements like vitamin D and zinc with fairly well established health benefits, research still disagrees about exactly what those benefits are, who benefits the most from supplementation and at what dosage.
This is not to say that dietary supplements aren’t beneficial when it comes to the ageing process, simply that more evidence is needed. Overall, Johnson’s supplement routine may be among the least important contributors to his epigenetic age reversal. The scenario in which supplementation is most likely to have an impact on ageing is when it is used to prevent deficiency in a specific nutrient. For example, a majority of Americans do not consume enough vitamin D. An insufficiency of this and other vitamins has been linked to increased age-related frailty, which could be linked to processes fundamental to ageing, such as the repair of damaged DNA.
Johnson assigns a high priority to consistent, good quality sleep. He sleeps in a blacked out room, avoids blue light and stimulating activities for an hour before bed, and maintains a consistent bedtime routine among other things.
Sleep is a generally undervalued component of a healthy lifestyle, but is possibly the most important health practice of all, as good sleep is required to fully benefit from other healthy practices like good diet and exercise. There is a very clear correlation between poor sleep and most chronic diseases of ageing. Poor sleep also correlates with shorter telomeres, increased DNA damage and other changes thought to be fundamental to the biology of ageing. While it’s hard to know how much of this is caused by poor sleep (as opposed to ageing causing poor sleep quality), animal studies and some human data suggest that even one night of poor sleep may impact cellular ageing noticeably.
We have a full 3-part series that covers everything you could want to know about sleep and how to optimise it.
Johnson’s workout routine lasts about an hour a day, cycling around 25 exercises alongside high intensity interval training (HIIT) three times a week. Most of these exercises are resistance-type exercises.
Exercise is a key pillar of good health, but we know surprisingly little about the quantity and type of exercise that is optimal for longevity. Research suggests that even 15 minutes of exercise a day significantly reduces mortality, but that increasing durations of exercise yield diminishing returns, and eventually result in increased mortality. Studies estimate that exercise becomes detrimental at somewhere around 10 hours per week, though this will depend on the type of exercise and health status of the person in question.
As for the effects of exercise on ageing specifically, this is also not well understood. Exercise can reduce inflammation in the long term, improves the function of mitochondria, and may even support the growth of new brain cells among other benefits. How exactly exercise achieves these effects is still an area of ongoing research.
What is the logic behind focussing on resistance training? Resistance training improves both muscle strength and cardiorespiratory fitness, both of which have strong associations with reduced mortality. Resistance training also has beneficial effects on bone health. However, research suggests that a combination of resistance and cardiorespiratory exercise may be the most beneficial for longevity. There is some evidence that HIIT is more effective than regular aerobic exercise in this regard but much more research is needed.
As you can see, we need more studies to investigate the nuances of exercise and its longevity benefits. Returning once again to the 80:20 rule, 80% of the benefits of exercise are going to come simply from ensuring that you are doing a moderate amount of exercise each day.
Boring as it may sound, most of the epigenetic age reversal accessible to the average person can be achieved through fairly simple steps. One thing that is not available to the average person is the extensive level of health monitoring that Johnson undergoes. This includes not only measurements of epigenetic age, but also whole body MRI and ultrasound scans, blood tests, stool tests and brain activity measurements during sleep. He has even taken a ‘camera pill’ to acquire images of his digestive system.
While these measurements obviously do not affect ageing themselves, some level of self-monitoring is important. It provides an objective assessment of whether your interventions are working, and which aspects of your health need improvement. Indeed, basing your decisions on what data says about your health, rather than on what you think you know about your health, is a core tenet of Johnson’s blueprint.
Some tests mentioned in the blueprint, such as blood sugar and urine tests, are relatively easy and inexpensive to procure. Commercial tests for epigenetic age are available, though not all of them are as accurate as those employed in scientific studies. Just remember our previous warning: epigenetic age measures one facet of the ageing process – it is not a definitive measure of overall health.
Be the next evolution of human: https://blueprint.bryanjohnson.co/
Hallmarks of aging: An expanding universe: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2022.11.001
Effects of caloric restriction on human physiological, psychological, and behavioral outcomes: highlights from CALERIE phase 2: https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuaa085
Sleep and Biological Aging: A Short Review: https://doi.org/10.1016%2Fj.coemr.2021.03.021
Partial sleep deprivation linked to biological aging in older adults: https://aasm.org/partial-sleep-deprivation-linked-to-biological-aging-in-older-adults/
The “Extreme Exercise Hypothesis”: Recent Findings and Cardiovascular Health Implications: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11936-018-0674-3
U-Shaped Association Between Duration of Sports Activities and Mortality: https://www.practiceupdate.com/content/u-shaped-association-between-duration-of-sports-activities-and-mortality/129089
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