How much money does it really take to reverse your body clock?

Bryan Johnson - Dustin Giallanza
Bryan Johnson - Dustin Giallanza

Who isn’t agog at the idea you can eat, drink and exercise your way backwards through time to achieve a body you last saw in the mirror in the sixth form?

Yet, that is what 45-year-old US tech entrepreneur Bryan Johnson is claiming he is close to achieving. His aim is not just to be 18 again but to do something more remarkable still: to stop time and achieve remarkable longevity, living healthily until 100 at the least, possibly 150, via a series of medical and fitness interventions costing $2 million per year.

Such ambitions are not news in Silicon Valley; there are dozens of Cali millionaires and billionaires preoccupied with “biohacking” (the process of applying the approach of a computer hacker to your own mind and body, often using technology and self-experimentation) their way to a longer life. Elon Musk has expressed an interest; Google’s co-founders set up a company looking into it; and Dave Asprey, “the father of biohacking”, is insistent he will live to around 180.

Indeed, it has become an industry in its own right, and one which a 2021 McKinsey Global Institute study projects could be worth a trillion dollars over the next decade. Money matters at every level: Johnson has already installed, at some cost even for a centimillionaire, a full medical suite at his home in Venice, California, as revealed in a Bloomberg Businessweek profile last week. All this, specifically, to buy himself the brain, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, tendons, teeth, skin, hair, bladder, penis and rectum of the 18-year-old he used to be.

Johnson is being helped by Oliver Zolman, a 29-year-old doctor, who specialises in researching ageing therapies in Cambridge. According to his website, “We’re aiming to be the first clinic to prove patients have reached longevity escape velocity, by reversing ageing and age-related diseases in all 78 organs.”

ech mogul Bryan Johnson
ech mogul Bryan Johnson

But what does that mean in practice, should we try it too – and can any of it actually work?

Zolman offers patients  three “longevity protocols”. The first is “essential prevention”, including quitting smoking (which supposedly adds 12 years to a life) and more than six hours of exercise per week (he says this adds eight years). Then there are “additional interventions” such as basic tests and therapies, before the more extreme “ageing damage reversals”, which include “remov[ing] waste from inside cells” and “fix[ing] the scaffold between cells”.

Speaking to Bloomberg, Zolman was stately in his comments on Johnson’s progress. Certainly more so than the patient himself, who, with a 37-year-old’s heart, a 28-year-old’s skin and the lung capacity of an 18-year-old, says he has never felt better. “We have not achieved any remarkable results,” Zolman, who studied at King’s College London, said. “In Bryan, we have achieved small, reasonable results, and it’s to be expected.”

It’s certainly not the only clinic with the broad aim of slowing ageing. Across London there are already dozens of facilities offering biohacking advice or therapies that promise to elevate anti-ageing from a loose advertising pledge to a medically-proven, scientific certainty.

According to Dr Mohammed Enayat, founder of the Hum2n “health, biohacking and wellness centre” in West London, the answer is yes and no. “It all depends on your starting point, and how far away you are from that body in the first place. As a 100-year-old, no you can’t. It’s like rust on a pipe. The more corrosion in that rust, and structural damage it’s done to your body, you can’t reverse that. So you’d have to start early. Healthcare has to start when you’re healthy. I’d frown upon the idea of ever giving a patient an age you could get down to, because that sounds like a sales pitch.”

Wanting to be 18 is ambitious – many body parts, including lungs, don’t mature until you are between 20 and 25 so that’s the furthest back you can de-age, or would want to.

There are, though, just as many companies that will offer various basic tests and tell you your biological age (for a steep price, usually), after which you can build a health plan. Dr Enayat has done this himself. Chronologically, he’s 38 years old. Biologically, according to the last time he was tested, he’s 23.

“And do I spend $2 million a year? No I do not. There’s absolutely a well-balanced way of doing this, you don’t need to spend $2 million per year to achieve longevity. You can do it for free, or you can do more therapies for a few thousand pounds.”

The very basic things Dr Enayat advises we could all do include looking after stress levels (in one particularly stressful year, he claims he aged two years in one, jumping from 21 to 23), making sure we sleep deeply for three hours within our standard seven or eight hours per night, enduring regular cold exposure, doing 30 minutes’ walking a day, breaking into a sweat three times per week during exercise, and having a balanced diet – ideally with intermittent fasting, vitamins and “a good probiotic”.

“There’s obviously a lot more you can do than that, including personalised supplements, hyperbaric oxygen chambers, cryogenic therapy and more of the extreme things that Johnson might do. We don’t see people who want to go as far as him. He’s also looking at improving his skeletal longevity, for instance, which is an extra thing,” Dr Enayat, who is also a part-time NHS GP in Lewisham, says.

“But if you’re on a journey towards disease, which we all are and we’re not taught that enough, you can slow that down, meaning you are slowing down the ageing process. And that’s what a lot of this is: intervention before diseases happen.”

It’s not entirely clear why Johnson has chosen 18 as his ideal age, but many doctors working in longevity medicine believe a more achievable – and, according to Dr Enayat, even more desirable, given the body is more fully formed at that age – age for somebody who is already a healthy midlifer looking to turn back the clock is “around 25”.

Dr Enayat appreciates the headlines are startling, and the pioneers in his field extreme. But behind it, he points out, is a basic message about taking care of ourselves now in order to benefit later. And equally important, he adds, are things entirely unrelated to medicine.

Studies of so-called “Blue Zone” areas – where scientists have found people live an abnormally long time – around the world found that kind neighbours, a sense of community, regular socialising  and having a purpose were key elements in their success.

The impetus for Johnson and other Silicon Valley figures has been assumed to be more time to spend the money they’ve made, but for the rest of us, it seems, just a well-balanced life would help.

“This is partly why I keep doing general practice,” Dr Enayat says. “Because you can get the message across that you don’t need to be this super rich guy or girl, this extreme person, to be able to take control of your health.”