I suspect that a sizable, earnest community of opportunists and alchemists focused on anti-aging and longevity will continue to exist even as we transition from an era in which the only approaches to aging (beyond exercise and calorie restriction) were snake oil, the only service providers frauds, to an era in which therapies to slow aging and produce rejuvenation actually exist and are robustly proven to do what they say on the label. Will reliable, low-cost ways to measure biological age drive out the true believers who try whatever intervention is hyped, fail to gain scientific understanding, and fail to use adequate measures of success, living on a diet of hope? Will reliable, low-cost ways to measure biological age drive out the opportunists who sell that hope, in the form of whatever trendy, unproven strategy is claimed to slow aging today? Maybe, given time.
Sadly, the advent of epigenetic clocks hasn’t yet helped that much. Since no-one knows what exactly an epigenetic clock measures in terms of the progression of aspects of aging, such as underlying molecular damage, or specific loss of function to organs and systems, we now have would-be demagogues claiming justification via low epigenetic ages allegedly resulting from their own personal strategies. This sort of data cannot yet be trusted in the absence of accompanying biomarkers of aging in which one can see meaningful differences following interventions. Those biomarkers are in short supply for basically healthy people much under the age of 50; differences will be small until later life for near everything that can be attempted at the present time. There are few exceptions to this situation, such as the state of the gut microbiome and the thymus and the ovaries, but the important line items of immune health, cardiovascular health, and function of other organs just haven’t faltered enough by that stage of life to be useful markers at this time.
Today’s article, with the usual depressing undertone of virtue signaling that journalists of the popular press seem to think is required these days, is an example of the consequences of a world in which most people cannot tell the difference, or do not care to tell the difference, between arrant nonsense, unproven therapies, proven therapies, legitimate scientific development, and outright snake oil. It all gets lumped into one bucket labeled “treating aging”, and those of us on the inside of aging research, patient advocacy, and the longevity industry wonder why it is sometimes challenging to convince people that aging can be treated, that we are on the way to human rejuvenation, that it is different this time, that what is going on is something more than branded skin care, fools tilting at windmills, fraud, and lies to cover up the wrinkles and the failing physiology.
Last fall, a group of 30 people gathered at an Etobicoke estate to sample the latest in life-extension innovations. They sipped brain-boosting beverages laced with lion’s mane mushrooms and garnished with grapefruit, participated in a breathwork session and soaked up the electromagnetic pulses of the BioCharger, a $20,000 device that looks like a giant blender, sounds like a bionic mosquito and is purported to fight chronic disease, brain fog, and flagging libido, among many other ailments. The evening was a soft launch for Longevity House, a private members’ club for Toronto’s burgeoning community of biohackers.
The price tag, $100,000 for a lifetime membership, was staggering. The promise, even more so: a chance to live longer, possibly to 120 years old. And not just longer but better, free from chronic illness and cognitive decline, by which standard six figures starts to sound like a bargain. Before launching Longevity House, Michael Nguyen was best known as the haberdasher to Toronto’s one-percenters. In 2021, Nguyen purchased a $3-million, 7,500-square-foot mansion in Mimico and packed it with the latest in high-performance fitness equipment: alongside the BioCharger is a Tonal (the weightlifting system LeBron James uses), a Carol (an artificially intelligent exercise bike) and a Katalyst (an electronic muscle-stimulation garment that looks like a wetsuit and promises “the world’s most efficient workout”). There is also a red-light therapy room, a full-body vibration plate, a cold plunge tub, and a custom-built sauna. Nguyen and his team have secured partner-ships with in-demand health and wellness-practitioners-naturopaths, breathwork specialists, a chakra guy, a therapist who specializes in psychedelics, and functional-medicine doctors who read blood and stool samples like physiological tea leaves.
Biohacking – to “hack” one’s biology for the purposes of optimization – is wellness spiked with gadgetry. It’s New Age woo-woo with internet-age efficiency, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop but for tech bros. (As yet, Longevity House has no female members, and on more than one occasion, I heard Joe Rogan’s name spoken with reverence.) What is a biohack, exactly? That’s hard to pin down since the category covers pretty much any health intervention, from the obvious to the outlandish. Yoga is a biohack. So is wearing a Fitbit. So are probiotics and mood-enhancing supplements, forest bathing, and looking deeply into another person’s eyes for a full minute. Also DIY experimental gene editing, fecal transplantation, and uploading your consciousness onto an external server in the hopes of one day joining a race of cyborgs. (Elon Musk is working on it.) The common thread among biohackers is a mindset that views Mother Nature’s work as a starting point.
Nguyen is used to the naysayers – history is littered with them. “We’re operating outside the norms of society, which can make people nervous,” he says. And that’s true, isn’t it? Don’t all breakthroughs start off as someone’s outlandish idea? Wasn’t Galileo convicted of heresy for his audacious insistence that the Earth orbits the sun? Isn’t it possible that my staunch allegiance to science will leave me on my deathbed while the biohackers skateboard into the next century? Nguyen is a charming and passionate hype man. But is he a modern Galileo or just a guy cashing in on the latest craze?