Billionaires are investing in body optimisation, biohacking and other advancements in medical technology that promise to turn back the clock on ageing. We speak with several experts to find out how the once-dreaded process of ageing has gone from exhausting to exciting

Dr Jonathan Seah, Co-Founder & Chairman, LifeClinic and LifeHub

Dr Jonathan Seah remembers watching as a young boy The Six Million Dollar Man, a television series from the Seventies about the world’s first bionic man. It tells the story of United States Air Force colonel Steve Austin (played by Lee Majors) who, after a Nasa test flight gone wrong, is rebuilt with superhuman strength, speed and vision.  

“Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology,” Seah says, putting on his best impression of Harve Bennett, who narrated the series’ intro. He reverts to his regular voice: “But really, it’s true: we are living in a time where we have the technology.” 

In recent years, and with astonishing speed, the subject of body optimisation through emerging medical treatments has transformed from the stuff of sci-fi fantasy into promising reality. Doctors, and subsequently their patients, are optimistic that a rise in new technologies will enable people to live healthier, more fulfilling lives at any age, with a broader push for positive thinking around seeking longevity that is at the heart of what is being described as the “pro-ageing” movement. As the global population is generally living longer, couples are also choosing to have children later in life and more people are seeking to remain engaged in their careers and reduce social isolation for as long as they can.

“Our mantra is that we want to help our clients work smarter, play harder and live longer,” says Seah, who is the co-founder and chairman of LifeClinic, an integrated medical clinic, and LifeHub, an independent medical wellness centre, both based in Hong Kong. “Much of what we do isn’t just to help our patients live longer, but to perform better for the age they are at. If you’re a 70-year-old person, you want a biology that’s closer to 50. And at 50, closer to 30.”

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Pro-ageing does not mean that people are embracing their wrinkles or grey roots—although in many chic circles, they are, even more so since the pandemic. Rather, it is a term that has become increasingly popular as a reaction against the commonplace beauty industry practice of marketing products as “anti-ageing”, as if looking older must intrinsically be something negative.

It also considers the very real possibility that we might someday be able to stop the physical process of ageing through science. And that day might not be very far off.

Dr David A Sinclair’s 2019 bestseller, Lifespan: Why We Age—and Why We Don’t Have To, caused a sensation when Sinclair, a Harvard Medical School geneticist who was named one of the 100 most influential people by Time magazine in 2014, argued that “there is no biological law that says we must age”.

Sinclair’s research has pinpointed the molecular causes of ageing, specifically the cellular loss of epigenetic information—which he compares to software that reads the DNA—over time, that are potentially reversible. In one study, he and his team reprogrammed the information of damaged optic-nerve cells of mice to be young and healthy again, reversing blindness caused by acute stress or ageing.

Understanding the core science of what causes ageing has only happened within the past decade, prompting a rush of research by scientists and companies that aim to develop anti-ageing drugs and other products that could stop ageing in its tracks. Meanwhile, legions of fans are adopting practices like exercising in extreme heat or subjecting themselves to blasts of cold in a bid to alter the destiny of their molecules.

Lindsay Jang, Co-Founder, Family Form

Lindsay Jang, the co-founder of two of Hong Kong’s coolest restaurants, Yardbird and Ronin, and co-founder of the cult workout movement Family Form, is a major advocate of the pro-ageing movement and regularly documents her journey online. “We have the technology now, and I’m all for using it,” she says. “I’m all about new tech: lasers, regenerative medicines, stem cells, hormones—anything that can support me feeling the best I can.”

Last November, she strutted into a new decade with abs, a flawless complexion and incredible energy. “I’m 40 and I can’t wait for the next 40 years. My body has never felt better,” says Jang, who credits celebrities like Cher, Jennifer Lopez, Jane Fonda and Halle Berry for embracing, rather than being ashamed of, their age, and shifting society’s attitudes towards ageing—particularly among women.

“They are proof of what’s possible if you prioritise your health,” she says. “I think we all want to age gracefully, and we all have different definitions of that. For me, I want to look and feel the best I possibly can, no matter my numerical age, with the assistance of aesthetics and functional medicine.”

Jang began her wellness journey when she discovered yoga in 1999 and fell deep into the practice, not only physically, but also educationally, to learn its effects on the body and mind. While living in New York City in the early Noughties, she got into the benefits of juicing. “Having dealt with digestion issues my entire life, I started juicing fresh vegetables daily in my tiny New York apartment. I think the juicer took up 99 per cent of my kitchen,” she says, adding that she continued digging into different holistic health practices. “It’s been an ongoing journey.”

Today, Jang has a solid routine to reach her pro-ageing and longevity goals: “Collagen in my coffee first thing. It’s a great dose of protein that gets me through my first sweat session of the day. I never miss taking my vitamins, supplements and medication. I have my hormone levels tested quarterly, my glucose tolerance tested annually and investigate anything that feels strange as soon as I see a pattern of it.” Family Form, her boutique workout class co-founded with Helen Kim at The Upper House in Hong Kong, features multiple heaters cranking up the temperature to levels that guarantee participants will sweat; meanwhile there’s no talking or verbal instructions.

“Pro-ageing is about taking prevention seriously,” says Jang. “Addressing the changes [that] you feel day-to-day; listening to what your body is telling you—good or bad; adjusting habits to balance all the systems in your body; and, ideally, having it run like a well-oiled machine.”

Dr Barbara Sturm, Aesthetics Doctor & Founder of Dr Barbara Sturm Skincare

While the term “anti-ageing” remains popular in the world of skincare and beauty, the “pro-ageing” movement appeals to a growing market of wellness-focused consumers.

“My whole career has been based around anti-inflammation, which is the main trigger for ageing and skin conditions,” says German skincare expert Dr Barbara Sturm, who is known for her eponymous science-based skincare line.

Sturm began her career in anti-inflammatory orthopaedics, and later translated some of her findings about joints into skin and aesthetics. “Aesthetics is a combination of art and science, and it is a fascinating challenge with immediate and gratifying results,” she says. “I started by injecting hyaluronic acid and Botox, which provided great results, but I kept thinking that it would be a great anti-ageing booster for the skin if we started mixing it with the body’s own anti-inflammatory healing factors.”

This is how Sturm’s signature “vampire facial” was born. Sturm captured the world’s attention when her client, Kim Kardashian West, posted a photo on Instagram of her face smeared with her own blood plasma. The facial was inspired by a joint treatment she pioneered for the late NBA star Kobe Bryant. “The treatment deployed healing factor proteins generated from the patient’s own blood,” Sturm says, adding that applying this approach to a facial “lasted longer, and the skin benefited greatly from the additional healing power of anti-inflammatory proteins”.

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In a less bloody battle for great skin, Sturm says her fundamental skincare advice never changes. “Healthy skin is glowing, beautiful skin,” she says. “The basics are a really good cleanser, a nourishing and hydrating face cream and a good hyaluronic acid serum.”

She adds that microdermabrasion, mesotherapy and microneedling are favourites among her clients. “These treatments strengthen the elastic tissue,” she says, adding that she always advises against aggressive treatments like peels and lasers.

According to Sturm, skincare is about more than applying a topical cream. “There is a holistic lifestyle approach to reducing inflammation and achieving wellness,” she says, which includes adequate sleep, daily exercise and adopting an anti-inflammatory diet by avoiding excess alcohol, sugar, and fried and processed foods.

“I don’t think there is a quick fix when it comes to skincare,” she says, “but if you follow an anti-inflammatory lifestyle and use hydrating and protective products backed by ingredient science, it will show on your skin.”

People want to have a higher quality of life and do not see the benefit of working very hard for several decades just to end up with a lot of resources but in a frail and unhealthy state.
Alax Zhavaronkov

Alex Zhavoronkov, CEO of Insilico Medicine and Deep Longevity

As the world’s super-rich amass fortunes that could span multiple lifetimes, it’s no surprise that members of the elite are particularly interested in life-extending treatments. Vladimir Putin, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are just a handful of billionaires investing in projects to reverse ageing. Bezos and Russian Israeli billionaire Yuri Milner are investors in Altos Labs, a Silicon Valley firm working on biological reprogramming. Meanwhile, Musk has more Futurama-like hopes that humans can one day upload and store our minds in a computer or robot.

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“The goal of developing technologies that can help keep people in an optimal healthy and youthful state, in the absence of disease for as long as possible, is not only an altruistic goal but also a socio-economic necessity,” says Alex Zhavoronkov, CEO of Insilico Medicine, a leader in next-generation artificial intelligence technologies for drug discovery and biomarker development. His spin-off company, Deep Longevity, develops a broad range of AI-based biomarkers of ageing and longevity.

“Nature is intrinsically unfair to people,” says Zhavoronkov. “Regardless of who you are and how much money you earn, once you reach the age of peak physical performance, you start losing function. People want to have a higher quality of life and they do not see the benefit of working very hard for several decades just to end up with a lot of resources but in a frail and unhealthy state.”

Zhavoronkov’s research is focused on understanding how ageing and age-associated processes turn into specific diseases such as cancer, and fibrotic, cardiovascular, neurological and other age-associated diseases. Insilico has developed AI to identify novel mechanisms of disease and biological targets as well. “AI then designs novel chemical molecules that regulate these targets,” he says. Deep Longevity uses AI to examine other forms of biological data that change with age, as well as the driving forces behind these changes; and to look for ways to slow down these processes, or even reverse them.

While this may seem ambitious, Zhavoronkov says that it “allows us to think beyond individual diseases” and build roadmaps that make grand challenges in drug discovery and biomarker development look more achievable. Ultimately, Zhavoronkov says he is driven by one goal: to help humans live longer in the optimal state of health and performance.

Last year, Deep Longevity published a paper that went viral based on an anonymised survey that suggested optimistic people can actually appear younger. “In the course of the study, we noticed that people who are more optimistic about the future, and about their health, are ‘psychologically younger’,” says Zhavoronkov. “People who are predicted to be younger than their chronological age are healthier and are less likely to develop disease or die prematurely.”

Deep Longevity recently developed an AI-based biomarker of psychological ageing and is in the process of launching an app called MindAge, designed to help people stay psychologically younger through activities that encourage creativity and productivity.

“Longevity biotechnology is not standing still and there are more and more smart people entering the industry,” says Zhavoronkov. “We should expect more breakthroughs in the near future. Life is going to be longer and better. I can’t wait to see the future 20 to 30 years from now.”

Jang agrees. When asked what she felt were the tenets of looking and feeling great as we age, she responds, “A positive community of people, whether it’s family or friends, or friends who are family, is the key to longevity for me.

“The ability to take care of others and be taken care of by others feels like the core of human nature,” she says. “I want to age with like-minded people who inspire me daily to get up in the morning, be the best version of myself and create new things.”

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