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What to Eat If You Want to Live Forever

An interview with "The Longevity Cookbook" author and anti-aging researcher Maria Konovalenko.

For many scientists, a lifelong love of learning is just that—lifelong. But for Russian biologist Maria Konovalenko, the average human lifetime isn't enough. That's why she's writing a cookbook for people who want to live forever.

Konovalenko learned about aging research from Mikhail Batin, head of the Science of Life Extension Foundation, which led her to apply and later enter the Biology of Aging partnership program between USC and the Buck Institute in Northern California, were she is working on her PhD.

As with many smaller scientific fields, the most significant hindrance to progress in aging research is the lack of funding and resources, Konovalenko says. Even though there are many grants and awards for the scientific community, aging researchers have a very difficult time raising money for their tests and experiments in traditional ways. Konovalenko is constantly searching for new ways to spread the gospel of aging research and find new ways for her colleagues to fund their work.

That brings us to The Longevity Cookbook, a collection of recipes and lifestyle recommendations backed by research, which Konovalenko and her colleagues recently raised over $50,000 for on Indiegogo. The goal is to scientifically identify which ingredients have been shown to increase human lifespans, and then create recipes built around those ingredients.

House musician and producer Steve Aoki has even become involved in the project, as he has a noted interest in the Singularity and life extension. Aoki will even be contributing a section to The Longevity Cookbook, focusing on the motivation behind life extension research.

"Life is beautiful, I don't see the reason why it must end."

I first came across Konovalenko and The Longevity Cookbook after she did a Reddit AMA. I knew little to nothing about the field and was more than a little skeptical, but Konovalenko's ideas and infectious optimism were more than a little intriguing. After all, who doesn't want to live forever?

What prompted you to start The Longevity Cookbook project, and what are you trying to achieve by publishing it?

Well, besides the fact that it's better to live well now and feel good and be healthy in the present, our main goal is to buy time until we can develop the necessary technologies that will enable us to live on indefinitely.

I've been fighting aging for seven years now and I'm also part of the Science For Life Extension Foundation, a small nonprofit based in Moscow. The group does all kinds of work in the life extension field, but much of it involves fundraising and getting the word out about our research. These are our main goals right now, because any progress we can make depends directly on the amount of funding we can procure.

We've tried talking to the media, we've tried all these ways to get our name and life extension research out there. After coming up short so many times, we thought, why don't we just write a book?

We thought that writing something that could appeal to a larger audience would be a good way to get longevity research to as many people as possible. A cookbook sounded like an obvious way to combine very practical things like recipes with explanations that allow the reader to have a deeper understanding of the science behind life extension.

What will be included in the book?

We were fully funded on our Indiegogo campaign recently, which was really great, and we're already underway with the first parts of the book.

The first chapter will focus not on food, but on life-extending drugs and geroprotective drugs, some that have already proven to be life-extending in lab animals. These will include both pharmaceuticals and supplements, some of which people are already taking for other medical or biological reasons.

It's also important to note that we aren't giving medical advice with this—we aren't doctors, but scientists. Our goal is to get all of the research and information together so that those interested can make informed decisions.

Are there any specific ingredients that you know will be used?

I can't mention too many right now, just because we haven't run full analyses on many of them yet. But I can say that I have never seen any negative research about olive oil.

Avocado doesn't look bad at all. It's definitely a little premature to name too many, simply because the research doesn't exist yet. But by the time the book comes out, we should have a very strong list together. Olive oil and avocado are the only two that I could honestly recommend right now.

Would you say your diet has been optimized for longevity at this point?

No, not really. I can guarantee that it will be once we have done the research and created the recipes.

My diet is really eclectic—definitely leaning towards Mediterranean, because I just love Italian food.

Are you developing the recipes yourself? Or do you have some people who specifically work on them?

I'm developing the information and coming up with our list of potential ingredients. Our goal is to take that list of ingredients and collaborate with food specialists and chefs.

We haven't identified many potential collaborators yet, but our focus will be on those that can maximize the flavor and create the tastiest recipes possible based on our ingredients.

What other sorts of information will we find The Longevity Cookbook?

Another major part of the book will go deeper into the scientific side and explain specific studies, looking at things like caloric restriction and various types of dietary restriction. This involves taking out a particular nutrient, like say, amino acids.

We'll talk about experiments performed on lab animals as well as some human data. We'll explain how dietary restriction works and mention the experiments that show how removing a particular item from lab animals' diets caused them to live longer.

I'll be explaining a particular item—mTOR, which is a major pathway for aging. In this section, I will focus on specific foods and substances that inhibit mTOR, like caffeine and olive oil, once we can research and organize the proper literature on it.

Can you elaborate on mTOR and its effects on aging?

It's too complicated to go fully in-depth, but mTOR is implicated in many different processes in the cell. When active, it makes the cells grow and prevents autophagy, which is cleaning out damaged molecules. Our cells don't need excessive growth when we age, they just need maintenance. Suppressing mTOR pharmacologically using rapamycin has been shown to extend the lifespan in all lab animals it's been tested on, from yeast to mice.

Why do you think people aren't interested in aging research?

In my opinion, people just don't think rationally. Our brains are not wired in a way that focuses on long-term issues like aging and death. And actually, people have a lot of barriers up around thoughts of death. Which makes sense, to an extent—if we went around thinking about death all the time, we would be constantly paranoid and our brains couldn't handle it.

Aging is considered to be something natural and inevitable, and most people are unaware of any significant research regarding aging. In one study, a worm was able to live ten times past its average lifespan, because of just a single manipulation. If people knew about this kind of research, if they knew that there was even the possibility to make this happen for humans, I think it would be different.

"MTOR is a major pathway for aging... I will focus on specific foods and substances that inhibit mTOR, like caffeine and olive oil."

If we can educate people on the science behind defeating aging, we have a chance to start accelerating our research and defeat aging for good. At the current rate of research, our near-future prospects just aren't that bright.

What specific efforts on aging research are interesting to you right now?

I just started my PhD thesis about the genetic pathways that regulate the behavior of stem cells while they're aging. My goal is to identify the interventions that would maintain the regenerative capacity of these tissues. The intersection of regeneration and aging has always fascinated me, because if we find a way to replace or replenish damaged tissue, we wouldn't have to worry about the cells dying over time.

Is there a way to do that yet?

Identifying the genes that are responsible for age-related decline and applying drugs that would either activate or inhibit the genetic pathways. That's a very straightforward approach. It depends on the types of cells and system that you're looking at, but that's probably the best way to go right now. In general, it applies to the stem cells themselves, but also to all cells in the body.

We'd like to understand what changes genetic expression, what genes are turned on or off, what genes are becoming more or less active during aging, and the idea would be to figure out ways that we can bring the activity of the genes back to youthful levels.

Aging research is really diverse, because it's so complicated. Some people approach it by looking at genetic interventions, some apply cell therapy, some are investigating the mechanisms of aging and cancer and how they're related, some people are looking at circadian rhythms, microbiota and so on.

Are there any other aspects of aging research, beyond what you've already mentioned, that you find particularly intriguing?

We've put together something that we call the Roadmap to Immortality; it has seven major parts to it, and each of those has even more sub-topics. Basically, these technologies are being developed and researched in parallel; some are far more advanced than others. The timeframe of bringing each aspect to life is different, and so that's why I'm focusing my research just on the biology of aging. Once more of these sections gets developed, we could be looking at potentially game-changing technologies; artificial intelligence, once it's created, could be the key to unlocking more technologies that would make radical life extension possible.

What do you see happening in the research of aging in the next ten years?

One area that is advancing very quickly right now is the ability to regrow certain tissues and organs. Hopefully within the next ten years, we'll be able to grow kidneys, livers, hearts, lungs, and more vital organs in labs. The research and technology is advancing even now, but it's just not completely there yet. Just like much of our research in aging, it's not going to happen if we don't find some sort of private money or a large government grant to fund it.

How do you think that could be possible within that timeframe?

What I would really like to see is a large-scale government initiative aimed at curing aging, where there would be a lot of people working together to achieve this specific goal. We've seen examples of this kind of initiative in the past: the Apollo Project, the Manhattan Project, the Large Hadron Collider. These were complicated tasks that were completed in a short amount of time after an injection of this vast amount of resources and manpower. I would also love to see an initiative to create a large, open-access scientific database that would allow every scientist on earth to share information, not just with other scientists, but with all of humanity. This would be a boost to all scientific research, not just aging. If something like this were to be put together in the next ten years, we could accelerate our research exponentially.

I believe that curing aging is not a scientific task, but a technological task. Scientists know what they need to be doing, they just don't have the means to do so yet. Humanity has a pretty good track record with technological advances that solve big problems, so I have faith that we can make it happen. But just like with the Apollo and Manhattan Projects, world-changing technology can't be accelerated without the necessary resources.

Why do you personally want to extend your life indefinitely?

I think having an indefinite amount of time in the world for exploring it, for learning different sciences, languages, how to play various music instruments, spending time with the loved ones, meeting a lot of new friends, tapping into your creativity, and doing tons of other different things on Earth and maybe someday even in space—I would love to have the chance to do all of that and more. Life is beautiful, I don't see the reason why it must end.

How long do you think you personally can live?

I think that I personally have a good chance of living radically longer, even indefinitely. That's the desirable scenario, of course. Right now the science doesn't have a ready solution, but we do know that it's possible. If something happened to me right now, like a car accident, my best chance would be cryopreservation. That's plan B, though. Plan A is to continue pushing the research forward that would allow me to extend my life without such methods.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Modern Medicine is a series on Motherboard about how health care and medical technology can move forward so rapidly while still being stuck in the past. Follow along here.