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Inside the very strange, very expensive race to “de-age”

“Young blood,” starvation, fruit-only diets: How the rich are striving to “age in reverse”

A man’s face is on a computer screen. The computer is connected to several obscure pieces of machinery, which lead to a more youthful-looking version of himself on a new screen. Min Heo for Vox
Whizy Kim is a reporter covering how the world's wealthiest people wield influence, including the policies and cultural norms they help forge. Before joining Vox, she was a senior writer at Refinery29.

Rich tech entrepreneurs are by all accounts a hyper-competitive bunch.

Whether it’s taking a shuttle to the edge of space, buying the biggest yacht, or challenging one another to a cage fight, with great wealth and power seems to come a voracious desire to engage in games of one-upmanship.

The Rejuvenation Olympics, an online leaderboard launched by tech millionaire Bryan Johnson earlier this year, takes the rivalry of the rich to the next level. The game? “Reversing” your age.

Participants compete not on physical abilities but on how quickly and by how much they can slow their “biological age.” It’s almost who can be the best Benjamin Button. Competitors do this mostly by adjusting their diets (like which macronutrients and supplements they consume), being physically active, and retesting their “age” regularly. They’re not actually reverting to a more youthful version of themselves — that’s not biologically possible. Rather, these competitors are racing to see who can age the slowest; as the Rejuvenation Olympics website quips, “You win by never crossing the finish line.”

A few players of this peculiar game stand out: Steve Aoki, the DJ and heir to the Benihana restaurant chain, appears toward the bottom of the site’s “absolute” ranking, which reflects the 25 competitors with the lowest rate of aging. The biohacker Ben Greenfield makes the list, too, as does millionaire and longevity science advocate Peter Diamandis. Most of the top 25 names, however, don’t spark immediate recognition, and some are anonymous.

Right now, tech millionaire Bryan Johnson, who is 46 years old, is leading. But 46 is just what competitors describe as Johnson’s “chronological age,” which means, simply, the years that have passed since his birth date. According to one well-known “biological age” test, he’s aging at a rate slower than his chronological age. He has made waves for his outlandish lifestyle that’s oriented entirely toward the goal of not just appearing young, but becoming younger: He has claimed that he eats 70 pounds of vegetables per month, most of it pureed. He receives blood transfusions from his 17-year-old son. He wears a red-light cap that’s supposed to stimulate hair growth. His body fat once fell to a dangerous 3 percent (though it has since bumped up a few percentage points).

The Rejuvenation Olympics tend to attract this kind of person: those obsessed with collecting and analyzing their personal health data, with the financial means to experiment with the minutiae of their lifestyles. Yet Johnson and the other Olympics competitors are hardly alone in their expensive attempts to gain maximal health. Such extremes are common among the ultrarich, and particularly the Silicon Valley set, a crowd known for its obsession with making moonshot ideas into reality. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey is renowned for his eccentric wellness habits; he eats one meal a day, meditates for at least two hours daily, and has a penchant for ice baths. For a while, Steve Jobs was a “fruitarian” — as in, only ate fruit. The wealthy indulge in countless health trends of varying dubiousness, whether it’s getting IV drips to reduce hangovers, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, implanting devices in the body to monitor health and live longer, even injecting themselves with young blood (a treatment called parabiosis, which Johnson is receiving).

The optimized lifestyle, with its constant monitoring and regimentation, costs money. This year alone, Johnson will reportedly spend at least $2 million on reducing his biological age.

There’s a certain hubris to the tech founders who insist they’ve cracked the code to a longer, healthier life. Society treats them as idols, geniuses whose savvy has vaulted them into the 0.0001 percent of the wealthiest people on Earth. It’s a small hop from there to believing they’d also be savvier than the rest of us about turning back the clock.

Among various health and wellness fads, longevity is the pursuit receiving much of the attention — and money — from the ultrarich. Last year, according to a report from the news and market analysis site Longevity.Technology, more than $5 billion in investments poured into longevity-related companies worldwide, including from some big-name tech founders and investors. Many of these companies are aiming to prolong life by focusing on organ regeneration and gene editing. The buzzy life extension company Altos Labs, which researches biological reprogramming — a way to reset cells to pliable “pluripotent stem cells” — launched last year with a whopping $3 billion investment, and counts internet billionaire Yuri Milner and, reportedly, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos among its patrons. Bezos was also an investor in the anti-aging startup Unity Biotechnology.

OpenAI founder Sam Altman, meanwhile, recently invested $180 million in Retro Biosciences, a company vying to add a decade to the human lifespan. Some of the most famous names in the death-defying sector are old: Calico Labs, a longevity-research subsidiary of Alphabet, was launched by then-Google CEO Larry Page in 2013. Nor is it just Silicon Valley that’s excited about the prospect of living longer. Tally Health, a new biotech company co-founded by Harvard scientist David Sinclair — who is something of a celebrity in the longevity community — boasts some Hollywood A-list investors: John Legend, Pedro Pascal, and Zac Efron.

Basically, if you’re anyone with any kind of serious money, chances are you’ve thrown some of it into the life-extension industry.

But all this hype and capital also means there’s a higher chance of being sold bullshit. Just because someone appears to be aging more slowly right now doesn’t mean they’ll live longer, and experts are highly skeptical of the idea of turning back the clock entirely.

“Somebody’s got to blaze the trail,” but there are also plenty of companies offering snake oil, says Michael Lustgarten, a Rejuvenation Olympics competitor who has a PhD in physiology and is a scientist at Tufts University’s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging. “The longevity community usually gets excited about snake oil — the latest supplement or the latest mouse study that extends lifespan.”

“It’s not possible to reverse your age,” Stuart Jay Olshansky, an aging expert and professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Illinois Chicago, tells Vox. “There’s validity to some of the work that’s going on in epigenetics that may be telling us something about the rate of aging. It’s not yet telling us about longevity.”

Life extension does sound like pseudoscience at first blush, but epigenetics, which is concerned with how our genes are expressed depending on environment and lifestyle, is one field that’s widely considered promising, making immense strides over the past decade in unlocking the secrets of how we age.

The first epigenetic “clock” was devised by Steve Horvath in 2013, but personal epigenetic age tests for consumers started getting popular just a few years ago. (Contestants in the Rejuvenation Olympics take these tests to track their progress.) Epigenetic age testing can give us a rough idea of how old someone is chronologically if they don’t know — for example, if someone doesn’t have a birth certificate.

More recent versions of the tests are offering clues not just to chronological age but to how much aging is happening biologically based on environmental factors and lifestyle habits, which can then potentially be used to predict the likelihood of disease or death. Here’s how it works: No two people age in the exact same way. Discrete from chronological age, “biological age” is the attempt to capture the often invisible difference through epigenetic gene expression, the state of someone’s organs, their immune system, and more. A 40-year-old with a history of heavy drinking and smoking, for example, may have a higher biological age than someone who never drinks or smokes. (In 2018, a Dutch man even complained that he ought to be able to change his legal age to match his biological age.)

The testing is nothing like an annual physical; it’s more a burgeoning wellness trend for those who have a few hundred dollars to spend on a home DNA test. The makers of such age tests contend that knowing your “biological age” can be the impetus for making healthy lifestyle changes.

There is some promising evidence behind attempts to extend the human lifespan. Even “young blood” transfusion, despite seeming too Elizabeth Báthory to be a real medical procedure, has some legitimate science behind it — research has shown that parabiosis (the scientific term for blood and plasma transfer) in mice can have regenerative effects on some cells. The trouble is that longevity startups often go too far with claims about what new evidence might mean for the future of human aging.

“I’ve called the anti-aging industry the second-oldest profession,” says Olshansky. “People made the same claims 2,000 years ago about some magical elixir that’s going to make you live longer and healthier.” The difference is that the fountain of youth is now being “pushed by a lot of people who have a lot of money — to make more money.”

Johnson, who made his hundreds of millions after selling a payments platform he developed to eBay in 2013, has become renowned not for what he’s invented, sold, or designed, as is the case for many other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, but for the unimaginably strict lifestyle he leads. According to his website and the many interviews he has given, he exerts constant vigilance over the 78 organs of the human body, consistently tracking everything from BMI to brain white matter. Johnson is often described as the “most measured man in human history.”

The point isn’t merely being healthy. It’s laser-precision optimization of his health.

Johnson, for example, never eats pizza or drinks alcohol. It’s simply not a part of his algorithm. “I was just a slave to myself and my passions and my emotions and my next desire,” he said in an interview with Vice Motherboard. That doesn’t mean he never stumbles, but when he does, he calls it an “infraction,” as though he has committed a minor crime.

Johnson tops the Rejuvenation Olympics leaderboard; he created the game along with Oliver Zolman — who leads Johnson’s team of 30-plus doctors and other health experts — and TruDiagnostic, an epigenetics lab based in Kentucky that provides the biological age test kits that participants in the Olympics must submit. The cheaper version costs $229. The more expensive one, at $499, provides more data on your results, including how habits like smoking or drinking alcohol have impacted a person’s aging speed.

Hannah Went, director of operations at TruDiagnostic, tells Vox the company is hopeful that, eventually, a wider swath of consumers will join in on epigenetic testing. But right now, their clients tend to be wealthy — the kind of people who can dedicate money and time to de-aging. To date, almost 30,000 people have measured their biological age with Went’s lab, and a little more than 1,700 of them have consented to submit their results to the Rejuvenation Olympics. Only the top 25 are posted on the homepage rankings.

Lustgarten, the Olympics competitor, believes he’ll move into the top 10 the next time the leaderboard is updated. Like other longevity chasers, he constantly monitors his biomarkers and makes tweaks to his diet or exercise regimen as needed.

It’s a contest that participants hope never ends — the most ultra of ultramarathons. The most dedicated members in the longevity community are, in essence, spending their lives obsessing over living. Says Lustgarten: “I plan on doing this for at least the next 70-plus years.”

Correction, September 26, 4:40 pm ET: A previous version of this story misidentified Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashton Kutcher as investors in Tally Health.


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