Ivan Apers, center, surrounded by participants in the RAAD Challenge, a yearlong health and fitness regimen culminating at RAADfest. Members showed off their results with a choreographed workout set to music.

The Death of Death

What young people can learn from a society of aging immortalists trying to live long enough to live forever.

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Dec 6 2018, 2:52pm

Ivan Apers, center, surrounded by participants in the RAAD Challenge, a yearlong health and fitness regimen culminating at RAADfest. Members showed off their results with a choreographed workout set to music.

This story appears in VICE Magazine's Burnout and Escapism Issue. Click HERE to subscribe.

“Are we ready to open the doors?” an event producer in a skintight catsuit asked into a headset.

As EDM blasted over a PA system, hundreds flooded into the ballroom of San Diego’s Town & Country resort: tanned-and-toned millennials, a group of friends from Venezuela, an engineer from Lagos, Botoxed retirees, and elderly couples pushing Zimmer frames. They took their seats, awaiting the good news:

“No one here, as far as I’m concerned, has to die anymore!” Jim Strole told the crowd to exultant cheers at the third annual RAADfest—the go-to science conference for immortalists of all stripes.

Luminous and dapper, Strole (biologically 70 years old; “ageless” in spirit), has the puffed-chest posture of a circus ringmaster. He was joined by his one-named cohost, Bernadeane (81 in calendar years), wearing a leopard-print pantsuit and red lipstick: “The greatest success, as far as I’m concerned, is not dying!” she added, though that could go without saying in this room.

For almost everyone else, it doesn’t. Most of us grew up surrounded by normative clichés about our mortality: Life is short; death is the only constant; live each day like it’s your last. What does it look like to live life as if there were no end—no such thing as burning out? More than 1,000 people, many of them adherents of Strole and Bernadeane’s Scottsdale, Arizona–based immortalist group, People Unlimited, came to RAADfest to find out.

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Jim Strole and Bernadeane, founding members of the immortalist group People Unlimited, greet the crowd on RAADfest’s opening night. The duo have been seeking and selling immortality for decades and have accumulated followers across the globe.

The celebratory confab is organized by the Coalition for Radical Life Extension, a gaggle of fringe scientists, biotech start-ups, and immortality enthusiasts united in agreement that “the deathist paradigm” has to go, and that within most of our lifetimes, biological aging can be a thing of the past. In one way or another, each board member’s career feeds off the advancement of age reversal science and the popularization of the immortalist ideology—be it via membership dues, supplement sales, or translating intrigue and research findings into investment funds.

People Unlimited’s members are the bona fide foot soldiers of the movement. As far as how long they intend to live: “We don’t have a number on that—it’s endless,” Strole clarified to the audience. But for the group’s global network of devotees, freedom from mortality is about more than escaping death—they know that’s a tall order. It’s about the catharsis that comes with believing one has all the time in the world to think, work, play, make love, and build careers. Envisioning a world without the ultimate trinity of burnout—aging, disease, and death—is as much a spiritual commitment as it is a scientific aspiration.

Alongside a hard sell for age-reversal products, People Unlimited deals in a currency of community and positive affirmation. Even their notably tactile affection for one another feeds the mission—as one member put it, they literally hold on to one another without the fear of loss.

“It’s such a tremendous alleviation of stress to live this way,” Strole told me over the phone a week after the whirlwind that was RAADfest. Decades their junior, I was still recovering, but Strole and Bernadeane seemed unfazed. Maybe they’re born with it; or maybe it’s their latest regimen of personalized vitamin supplements, immune-boosters, piano playing, and sports-car driving.

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In the RAADfest exhibition hall, a woman tests out the Rasha Morphogenetic Harmoniser System. The product purports to reverse mutations in “junk DNA.” The Nevada-based company offers “quantum self- healthcare” as an alternative to conventional Western medicine.

For the most serious devotees, immortality-seeking is a full-time commitment to keeping abreast of the latest innovations—they speak of these “modalities” with the same reverence a Christian would of a blessing. A $250 billion industry of antiaging products and services is there for the collection—and many of their offerings are for sale at RAADfest.

"I know it's gonna sound stupid, but I feel... metallic,” an Australian named Ray Palmer explained to me in the RAADfest exhibition hall. He was easing into his second hour hooked up to an IV coursing NAD+-replenishing fluid through his veins. The coenzyme’s depletion is linked to aging and aging-related disease—a study re-upping the stuff in mice was found to make them livelier, more youthful, and more muscular. There’s no clinical evidence of such effects in humans, but one thing’s for sure, said Palmer: “My thoughts are extremely profound. Since I’ve been sitting here I’ve written a book in my head about that plant over there.” People at RAADfest were lined up to try it out.

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Rudi Hoffman, a 61-year-old cryonics life insurance salesman, climbs into an at-home hyperbaric chamber.

At the Stem Cell Institute booth of Neil Riordan, PhD, you could sign up for stem cell therapies delivered in Panama that, according to their purveyor, cured Mel Gibson’s father of liver and kidney failure. A poster boy for the clinic, Hutton Gibson was wheelchair-bound when he came in and walking a month later, Riordan told the audience. You could also arrange to be injected with the blood plasma of a teenager for around $8,000. You could stand on a vibrating platform that, according to its sales rep, gives “the most benefits ever.” You could lie between electronic currents and be whispered to by a nymph-like blond. You could buy pretty vaginal weights from a self-styled tantric master.

If this all fails, there’s the ultimate speculative investment: cryonic preservation, as used by Austin Powers. “Two hundred thousand dollars for the whole body, $80,000 for the head—that’s where your memories are; we should be able to rebuild the rest,” explained R. Michael Perry, who is a live-in employee at the Alcor cryonics facility in Scottsdale, where he helps watch over more than 160 preserved bodies. Another 1,200 are signed up to be put on ice and brought to the facility upon legal death, with most paying in advance via specialized life insurance policies. Bodies have been accumulating here since the 1970s, but none have been resurrected yet—the technology to do so doesn’t exist, and no one knows if it ever will.

This is going too far for Ivan Apers. “I’m not a fuckin’ popsicle,” bristled the muscular Belgian, who relocated to Arizona to be closer to People Unlimited. Over the years, so has a cohort of Venezuelans who heard about People Unlimited through friends back home. Among them was Libny González. When she moved to Scottsdale to join the group 13 years ago, she was only in her early 30s, but she was already rolling her eyes at the pattern society had drawn for women’s lives.

“For a woman it’s ‘Oh now you’re 30, you need to get married, have children,’ blah blah blah,” she said. “You need to be at 25 something, at 35 something, and at 45 you’re done, you cannot be beautiful, fall in love, have children. No way! I’m going to get everything I want because I don’t have limits,” she said frankly. “I know I’m not dying.

“You can’t wait,” she continued. “If you want radical life extension, you have to move. You have to be ready. Not everyone is prepared for this life.” She gestured aggressively to an unspecified point in the distance.

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Ben Goertzel, PhD, of Hanson Robotics performs a duet of a Björk song with Sophia, a humanoid robot being developed by the company, which is looking to create “living, conscious machines.”

For Bernadeane, a great-grandmother who confidently sports mini-skirts and hasn’t spent a dime preparing a will, an endlessly livable life means escaping crippling psycho-social dynamics, from possessive relationships to traditional family roles to age-specific fashion. She considers herself liberated from the accepted norms of aging.

“Years are scary for people,” she told me. “I’ve been here for 81 years—I’m not 81 years old. I’ve closed all doors of escape.”

Things are less urgent for the younger generation—the drive to try experimental therapies is less pronounced. Asking around at RAADfest, I found that most people stick to a relatively low-risk regimen of daily supplements and exercise.

For Bernadeane’s millennial granddaughter Brittany Bejarano, that means yoga every day, weight training three to four times a week, and a supplement roster that would fill my notebook, she warned. For young immortalists, it’s all about preserving the body so it’s better-prepared for breakthroughs to come.

More specifically, until about 2045. Kurzweil’s RAADfest keynote address assured the audience that year is when the tipping point—“The Singularity”—will surely have arrived—when artificial intelligence will surpass humans and allow everything, including biomedical research, to speed up exponentially.

In recent years, the science moving through the research pipeline—much of it in mice—has shown potential in reversing cell senescence and aging-related damage, which, if effective in humans could, in theory, offer endless opportunities to turn back the clock. And perhaps, with the help of artificial intelligence, research into now-fringe therapies will be expedited to reach the gold standard of human clinical trials ever faster. Perhaps that data will be analyzed at warp speed, spurring FDA-approved drugs and driving prices down as they percolate into the mainstream, and, at long last, into the insurance policies of everyday folks. This is all a big maybe with no real time frame, but for people like Strole and Bernadeane, it’s less of a maybe now than they could have ever imagined.

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Brittany Bejarano, 31, is the granddaughter of People Unlimited’s co-founder Bernadeane. Brought up in the People Unlimited community, she is raising her toddler to “live long enough to live forever.”

Bernadeane began her pursuit of immortality 60-odd years ago, the moment she heard the evangelical minister O.L. Jaggers on her car radio. “He was talking about how the physical body didn’t have to die. It rang a bell with me. It was instant. I didn’t think about ‘Is this real or not?’” she says.

Before long, she met Strole, and they took their act on tour, seeking out other immortalists to further the cause. Back in the 70s, when Strole first got up to speak at one of their early “super-longevity” events, he told me, “I was so nervous my bell-bottoms were ringing!”

Back then, seeking immortality meant finding someone who’d give you regular colonics, vitamin C IVs, and cleanses before they were trendy. It didn’t mean offshore stem cell treatments and experimental gene therapies, age panel tests or ultra-personalized vitamin protocols. It didn’t mean Silicon Valley age reversal labs funded by tech scions, or plans for humanoid robots to eventually conquer biomedical research.

But it does today, and that’s served as vindication for the movement’s diehards that they’ve been onto something all along.

Bill Faloon, who resembles a TV game show host from a different era, is another RAADfest fixture. The owner of Life Extension Foundation—the premier supplement retailer at RAADfest—is also a founder of the Florida-based Church of Perpetual Life. During one of many RAADfest talks, he pulled up a slide citing new research in the elite Journal of the American Medical Association, outlining the dangers of “zombie-like” senescent cells that spew harmful proteins, and the potential of senolytic drugs to curb the harm done—progress, but again, in mice. He nodded in satisfaction, bouncing a remarkable pompadour in the jet-black hue of a much younger man. “I’ve been saying this for decades!”

In an “Age Reversal Guide,” Faloon outlined a recommended course of senolytics and ways to obtain them via one of his websites. The audience was grateful—but despite senolytics’ promise, according to mainstream scientific protocol, such enthusiasm is wildly premature without results from placebo-controlled human trials.

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RAADfest headliner Aubrey de Grey, a superstar of the immortalist movement. The controversial biomedical gerontologist came to prominence for his belief that medical technology has the potential to banish age- related ailments. His Silicon Valley research foundation explores ways to rejuvenate the body and reverse human aging.

“I can’t deny there might be some amazing breakthrough tomorrow. I hope it does happen for my own sake and for everybody else too. But I have not seen anything in the scientific literature that suggests that”—and experimental offshore gene therapies don’t count, said Steven Salzberg, a biomedical engineering professor at Johns Hopkins. Salzberg dedicated an article in Forbes to “several rather serious problems” in the claimed success of gene therapies conducted in Colombia on one of RAADfest’s biggest stars, Liz Parrish, the CEO of BioViva, a biotech company. Several times, she took to the stage celebrating the results of an experiment performed only on herself.

A gentleman promoting stem cell therapies in the exhibition hall admitted his field is a “wild west” that includes facilities resembling “eighth grade chemistry labs.” But people like Norman Spivock, a 94-year-old skiing enthusiast, aren’t prepared to rule anything out. “What do we do? Wait around? I don’t have time to wait,” he told me.

Living to 200 may be hard to imagine. The oldest person ever lived to be 122—a spring chicken by People Unlimited standards—and many scientists believe that’s the upper limit of the human life span. But the reality of aging loved ones is something that stares us, and our economies, in the face every day. We’ve been extending life for generations, but vitality hasn’t kept pace.

In the past 200 years, overall human life expectancy has doubled, spurred more by declining infant deaths and improved public health infrastructure than better-managed aging. But the global 85+ cohort is expected to increase 351 percent by 2050, according to a World Health Organization report. Dementia, stroke, or parkinsonism still befall half of women and a third of men during their lifetime, according to research published in October in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry.

And between the ages of 70 and 90, medical expenses for the elderly increase more than twofold. An American who reaches her 90s will command more than $25,000 per year on average in care costs, much of that going to nursing homes.

While there’s little debate that the enormous burden of aging is a hallmark of our time, it’s mainly regarded as an inevitability by most people and by uber-cautious federal agencies that fund research and green-light drugs.

People Unlimited may represent the outer reaches of optimism around age reversal, but it’s “1,000 times closer to perfection” than the contrary: a perverse acceptance of a tragic status quo, said Aubrey de Grey. The pot-stirring English gerontologist credits himself with shifting the conversation around aging in the 90s, from slowing aging to actually reversing it. “Everyone thought I was crazy,” he told me. Now, as studies trickle out suggesting cell damage reversal may be possible: “Everyone who hates dying loves me.

“When people say, ‘Death gives meaning to life.’ I mean. What. The. Fuck. What is that supposed to mean—you want your mother to get Alzheimer’s?” De Grey is baffled by “the desperation to come up with fucked up crazy reasons to pretend that aging is some kind of blessing in disguise.”

For Bejarano, it’s a conversation she’s never entertained. “I grew up in this life,” the effervescent 31-year-old told me, somewhere between performing a choreographed workout on the RAADfest stage and listening to a talk on stem cell therapies. Now she’s bringing up her one-and-a-half-year-old son to live life like she does: as if there’s no end in sight.

“My motto is, everything I do is to prove myself right—to prove to my body that I’m gonna be here forever,” she said.

Merely believing this is perhaps the ultimate form of mental escapism; but physically, it means treating the body as a vessel of hope straight from the Field of Dreams playbook: If you build it, immortality will come.

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