Leonard Jones had sandy-blonde hair, a beard that “came down to his knees,” and a desire to put an end to the waggish shenanigans rampant among the 19th century American public. 

In 1835, Jones met a preacher named “McDaniel,” who convinced him that immortality was within reach: all one had to do was live a “strictly moral life of prayer, poverty, and fasting.” “Death,” Jones proclaimed, “is nothing but unbelief.” They planned to found a town of immortals together. 

Then McDaniel fell ill and died, and Jones made two observations. First, clearly McDaniel’s faith wasn’t strong enough to achieve immortality. And second, a town of immortals wouldn’t make the kind of impact he wanted on the world. He decided to run for office: first for Congress, in several districts, and then for President of the United States. According to a local paper, “he received but a few, if any, votes” in his 20 years as a candidate. 

In 1868, Leonard “Live-Forever” Jones refused treatment for pneumonia, insisting that his faith would save him, and died at the age of 71. To his credit (and possibly devotion to caloric restriction), he lived about twice as long as the average American in his time. 

“Spanners” like Jones have existed throughout history. Juan Ponce de León, who famously died while seeking the “Fountain of Youth” in 1521, is probably the most well-known spanner. Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor, trusted his alchemists to create an elixir to grant him immortality (unfortunately, that elixir had a mercury base). 

Thankfully, research from the past 150 years has made spanning more of a science-based undertaking and less of a madman’s pipedream. 

For example, DNA—which we now know has a huge impact on life expectancy—was not discovered until the late 1860s. Watson and Crick only started theorizing about DNA structure, the double helix, in the 1950s. Senescent cells were first recorded in 1965. The “hallmarks of aging” weren’t defined until 2013. These breakthroughs are so recent that the possibility of studying—and beating—aging weren’t possible until very recently.  

what is a spanner

This article aims to answer several questions people have about spanners, namely:

  • What is a “spanner?” What is spanning? 
  • Who are the spanners today?
  • Are spanners “transhumanists” or “biohackers?”
  • Is spanning safe?
  • Why can’t spanners just follow evidence-based medicine? 

It’s a lot to cover, so let’s get started!

What is a “spanner?” What is spanning?

Spanners are people who proactively seek to extend their own healthspan and lifespan indefinitely. 

“Spanning” includes any deliberate activity to extend one’s life. For example, intermittent fasting, benchmarking your biological age, or even just going for a brisk walk can all be considered spanning, so long as the intended outcome is human life extension. In other words, two people, one a spanner, one not, can be weight lifting and using the exact same weights, reps, and sets, and only one would be spanning. Intention matters. 

Who are the spanners today?

What is a spanner? A spanner out for a run extending his healthspan and lifespan.
A spanner out for a run

While it’s easy to point to spanners throughout history, we’re more interested in who’s actively practicing and researching life-extension methods today. 

Currently, we’re working on a comprehensive list of top longevity influencers. In the meantime, we’d like to emphasize that spanners are all around you. 

J.P. and I here at Longevity Advice are both spanners. 

Liz Parrish, the BioViva entrepreneur who is controversially self-experimenting with a myostatin inhibitor and telomerase gene therapy, is also a spanner.

David Sinclair, author of the top longevity book, “Lifespan: Why We Age―and Why We Don’t Have To” and Harvard longevity researcher, is a spanner for neither of those accomplishments. He’s a spanner because of the stack of supplements he takes and lifestyle choices he makes intended to extend his own life.

The vegan or low-carb enthusiast wanting to extend their healthspan through diet are both spanners. 

Yogis? Maybe. Joggers? Maybe. Resveratrol consumers? More likely. 

The question is, “Are you doing this activity to extend your healthspan and/or lifespan?”

If the answer’s “yes,” you’re a modern-day spanner.

Are spanners “transhumanists” or “biohackers?”

Transhumanists vs spanners and biohackers vs spanners: these groups are not all the same. Transhumanists showing off their Grindhouse Wetware device in their hands.
Many transhumanists and biohackers are spanners, but not all of them.

Transhumanists are people who believe technology can and should evolve humans beyond their physical limitations.

Biohackers are people who make purposeful tweaks to their lifestyles for a desired outcome, such as weight loss, reduced anxiety, or increased libido. 

Spanners can be transhumanists and spanners can be biohackers. They can also be health nuts or fitness gurus or quantified-self fans. There is overlap with almost every wellness community, as wellness communities often espouse benefits for extended and improved healthspans and lifespans. 

The solution to aging will likely be multifaceted and may come from a plethora of these communities.

Longevity.Technology has an excellent graphic demonstrating just how many different avenues there are from a business perspective to approach spanning outside of what one can do at home:

A wheel containing a number of spanner technologies, showing that the answer to "what is a spanner?" is a difficult to answer question.
Source: Longevity.Technology

In other words, one does not have to be a biohacker or transhumanist to be a spanner, but many transhumanists and biohackers are spanners, or are biohackers or transhumanists because they primarily identify as a spanner. 

Is spanning safe?

Spanning, like most things, is a function of personal calculations of risk versus reward. 

For example, I broke my foot in two places while spanning: I was out on a run and landed wrong. To me, the chance of encountering personal injury was worth the long-term health benefits associated with running, like a lowered risk of all-cause, cardiovascular and cancer mortality in my sunset years. Nine weeks, crutches, a boot, and seven physical therapy sessions later, I still intend to run when I’m able to again. 

The way I look at it, I’d rather break my foot again than get cancer, even in forty years. 

More conservative forms of spanning might include prioritizing a regular sleep schedule. And more aggressive forms of spanning might include taking prescription medications like metformin or rapamycin for their off-label anti-aging effects. 

However, if you do nothing by way of spanning, know that the average age of diabetes onset is 45, the average age for first heart attacks is 65 for men and 72 for women, and the median age for a cancer diagnosis is 66. Doing nothing is a risk in and of itself. 

Why can’t spanners just follow evidence-based medicine?

Researchers discussing results of a recent experiment that may affect spanners.

There has not been enough research into longevity, wellness, or healthspans to entirely rely on scientific consensus. Remember: as recently as 1953, doctors knew so little about health that they prescribed cigarettes to treat “sore throats and coughs.” Randomized, controlled trials weren’t commonplace until the 1990s—and women weren’t required to be in any medical trials until the NIH updated their research requirements in 1993. Major anti-aging research institutions weren’t founded until very recently: The Buck Institute in 1985, the Methuselah Foundation in 2003, and SENS in 2009. 

Compare that to the American Chemical Society, which was founded in 1876, or the American Physical Society, founded in 1899. 

In other words, the scientific foundation and best practices for wellness, anti-aging, and life extension research only started to get its bearings over the past 30 years. Nutrition and fitness science are overwhelmingly complex for the same reason: there just hasn’t been enough research, funding, or interest until very, very recently. 

What’s next for spanners?

Life-extension enthusiasts and healthspan extenders are coming together to insist on more research and more interest to combat the problem of aging. 

One of the best ways to do so is by sharing what you’re doing for healthspan and lifespan extension with other spanners. What is your regimen? What’s worked? What hasn’t? 

Let us know in the comments!

Additionally, Longevity Advice aims to be a resource for spanners. If this is your first time on the site, consider starting with these articles:

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9 Comments

  1. Mike Cottrill

    Rachel, I enjoyed reading this article very much. Reading articles such as this is encouraging as it impresses upon your readers that rejuvenation and longevity is a powerful and increasingly vibrant community. I need this every so often, as when I speak about this exciting area of research, more often than not, I am met with disinterest and apathy. Keep up your good (and important) work.

    With The Warmest Regards.
    Mike Cottrill

  2. john Schlick

    There are so many many things here…

    first, your website has zero contact intormation for you or your partner.

    Second, you list “influencers” like David sinclair – well known for many sketchy things, and Liz Parrish – deep research into what she is selling (and her telomere theories) tend to come up as not peer reviewed, and very sales oriented at any cost.

    you fail to talk about George church and the TFAM gene activation therapy in dogs,

    you fail to talk about Aubry de Grey that talks in very powerful terms about hte money needed for proper research.

    you fail to talk about Nathaniel David and Unity with the drug in FDA testing that, yes, just got pulled, but is a strong contender as an anti senolytic.

    you fail to talk about the work of Dr Steve horvath at UCLA… you know the guy that invented the epigenetic clock (well, if you doscount Hanuum, who also published one in 2013, but horvath has continues, and I haven’t seen Hanuum have the same success) On, and if you haven’t read the epigenetic remodeling paper of his from 2019 where he reverses the clock? Thats a MUST READ (this is where sinclair got the idea that it could even be done…)

    You failed to mention the TAMe group (Targeting Aging with MEtformin) who have been arguing witht he FDA for the better part of a decade and they finally got a definition of aging that doesn’t use the word aging that was a major breakthru.

    You failed to mention Dr. Matt Kaberlein – possibly one of the most respected researchers in teh field and the dog aging project.

    you don'[t mention Ray Kurzweil at all. One of the early adopters of using what we already know to raise teh odds that you might live longer, and oh yeah, chief scientist at google, but he;’s so much more interesting than that, he is the reason we have optical character recognition, and one of the fathers of deep learning (also called AI in many circles), and before that? he revolutionize the music industry with the Kurzweil synthesizer/organ.

    There is a paper the lopez-otin paper 2013 that really codified averything we knew up till that time, and allowed for the conversations we are having today to start to take place (the hallmarks of aging). you didn’t even mention it in passing, it’s possibly the most important paper in teh field.

    you ask why people don’t follow evidence based medicine, and you don’t talk about the FDA process, adn how long things take, or that there is a LOt of current research and people CAN follow the research in advance of the FDA as opposed to taking shots in the dark – which is what you seem to imply is happening with the note that it’s only been in the last 30 eyars that people have started to do research. Which isn’t exactly true, the first dietary restriction paper was 1936 is the depths of teh great recession when we first learned that we COULd actually change lifespan in mice and that was our first clue that we humans might have a shot at changing lifespan by using real science.

    In your discussion you mention “health nuts” (a perjorative), and you don’t explain qualtified self – and you certainly don’t touch on how technology around the constant blood glucose monitoring device that uploads data to your phone has caused this group to EXPLODE…

    you appear to be the ONLY person using the term Spanner (ok, I found one reference to healthspanner – but you didn’t differentiate between healthspan and lifespan)…

    My background? I spent (very recently) 2 years studying/auditing genomics classes at the university of washington with some nutrition and pathology and microbiology and biostatistics classes thrown in – I also spent a year doing work in an epigenetics lab to make sure that I understood how lab work got done. I’ve given a few longevity seminars on the state of the art around what you can do yourself thats supported by the current research, and I’ve written a number of 500ish word pieces that I posted on my facebook page for friends to read as I learned some of these topics (I think I’m up to 184 of them that I’ve saved in a separate folder). I DO keep up on the current papers (the new AKG paper from the Buck was pretty interesting.)

    Look, let me summarize: it appears that you have a handle on some of the history, and thats engaging, But you toss out terms that only people already in the space will get. you are heavy on fluff and you picked less than steller people to spotlight, and you are light on hinting at the far deeper details that are there, and the worst part is that you don’t shine a more positive light on the evidence that is ALREADY there. I sincerely hope that you plan to have less fluff and more well researched topics in the future (and even if you teast that there are well researched topics out there! I think thats better than whan you did with this piece) . (and no, sorry, I haven’t read the other articles on your site.)

    I want to be clear that I think what you wrote has promise, this isn’t me trying to hatchet you, I just want glimpses of more of the facts and the amazing things we already have learned, fewer references to sketchy folks, and a little less fluff in the process of presenting the information.

    John.

    1. Rachel Burger

      Hi John!

      I’m so glad to have such passionate people in our audience and community and I’m glad you found our comments section to be helpful to communicate with us.

      You’re so right: there are lots of people, events, and new discoveries fueling the spanner movement. As I’m sure you discovered while writing your comment, it’s difficult to compress so much information into shorter pieces of content. For example, had I included everything you’d mentioned, this piece on what Spanners are would have been monstrous—at least 3,000 words long!—and covering far more than just the topic at hand.

      And while you’re correct in that we haven’t yet covered Unity or Kaberlien (we’re only just starting out), we’ve looked at most of the other researchers and important studies you mention, just in other articles on our site. Dr. Barzilai’s TAME study was mentioned in our piece featuring top longevity books, where we also mention Kurzweil and de Grey, and Horvath’s clock has made it into most of our pieces, including our first article, where we also discussed a recent study on CaAKG.

      I hope you stick around to see more of our coverage in which we address many of the topics brought up in your comment.

      In the meantime, Medium, WordPress, and Squarespace all offer excellent outlets for blogging if you’re interested in writing more lengthy pieces on radical life extension.

      I wish you the best,
      Rachel

  3. Allen Rosenberg

    I found this site today while browsing fightaging.org. It certainly takes a lot of effort to maintain a site like this and I appreciate that. I’m joining your mailing list and look forward to recieving more information on such an important subject.

    Allen

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