Longevity: How celebrity billionaires may make you 10 years younger

Leslie Kenny, Founder and CEO of Oxford Healthspan and longevity expert, reveals the progress being made in boosting life expectancy
Leslie Kenny

There’s a new, observable trend among the world’s top billionaires. Instead of investing in disease prevention in developing nations the way that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett historically have, today the world’s richest men are investing billions in something distinctly more personal: reversing biological age.

Last year, Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, and Israeli billionaire, Yuri Milner, made a splash by participating in a US$3b raise for Altos Labs, a start-up dedicated to exploiting the Yamanaka factors - named after the 2012 Nobel Laureate in Medicine or Physiology - which uses four proteins to return cells to a pluripotent state in which they can become any type of cell the body might require.

And just two weeks ago, Tally Health, a start-up focused on slowing biological aging through supplements and biological aging testing was launched by Harvard Med School scientist Dr David Sinclair. In addition to Sinclair’s own high visibility in the consumer anti-aging world, the world’s richest man, Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, is an investor via L Catterton, the world’s largest consumer brand focused private equity group is Tally Health’s financial backer. With prior investments in Peloton and Birkenstock and unique global consumer insights, L Catterton is betting that consumers will be pivoting to reversing their biological age.

Indeed, there was already a list of 270,000 potential subscribers to Tally Health even before its official launch.

According to Dominic Endicott, founder of AgeTech venture capital fund, 4Gen Ventures, ‘age is the final frontier’ for tech pioneers like Bezos. And Amazon happens to be perfectly poised to enter this market with the deep knowledge of the consumer habits of those over age 50 who have been buying on Amazon for over a decade. This gives them the consumer behaviour knowledge to predict what consumers will invest dollars in as they age.

But where the billionaires go, so too will the broader investment market. Endicott believes that this market will be such an obvious and attractive play that corporate investors will join more traditional sources of funding, such as pension funds and banks.

In the past, the major beneficiary of this capital has been healthcare and biotech. Longevity looks miniscule by comparison. In 2020, investment into longevity start-ups amounted to US$2.95b or 2.8% of what was invested in biotech. However, by 2022, that figure had more than doubled to US$5.24b or 7.6% of what was committed to biotech ($69b). And the future looks promising due to the failure of healthcare and biotech to solve the problem of declining healthcare outcomes just as the global population gets older.

In the US alone, nearly US$4.3 trillion is spent annually on healthcare according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, with roughly 90% representing management, not cure, of chronic diseases.

But the number one risk factor of any of the chronic diseases is aging itself. This led London Business School Professor Andrew Scott, co-author of the Nature paper ‘The economic value of targeting aging’ to ask the question, “]what would happen if we slowed aging in the US population by a single year instead?“ Together with Oxford University health economist, Professor Martin Ellison, and Sinclair himself, they realized that there was an annual dividend to be reaped that was roughly 10-fold the current cost of American healthcare. By their reckoning, if the US spent US$3.7b on healthcare, the return would be US$37b.

This has been dubbed ‘The Longevity Dividend’ and it would be worth the attention of government policy makers to take seriously before these countries experience their own Titanic moment of a healthcare iceberg that represents more than 20% of US GDP and is only getting bigger.

Indeed, the aging populations of the Western world are bringing productivity levels down and debt up. In the US, 16% of the population is currently 65+, and that will grow to 20% by 2030. In the UK, the numbers are 19% and 24% respectively. But no place are these numbers more stark than in Japan, where 29% of the population is currently 65+ and will grow to 33% by 2030.

Unlike the US, which spent around US$11,126 per capita on healthcare in 2021, Japan invested only US$4,986. While 50% of Americans suffer from a chronic disease, which is effectively a sign of aging and where 73% of the population was judged to be overweight or obese in 2019, the Japanese enjoy the lowest rates of overweight at 27% for the same time period and are blessed with the best healthcare outcomes in the OECD living to 84.4 compared with 78.6 in the US. This is in spite of Japan having a larger aging population where a significant percentage of men regularly chain-smoked and drank heavily. And yet, Japanese smokers lose an average of 4 years of life, compared with 9 lost in the US and 10 in Great Britain.

Why the discrepancy? Unlike the US, which has pursued a heavily medical approach after disease has been diagnosed, Japan as a society has focused on prevention to keep its population biologically younger. Those chain-smokers and heavy drinkers were also regularly consuming green tea and natto which both contain naturally occurring anti-aging molecules (EGCG, spermidine and spermine).

Another example of their advanced healthspan strategy was their celebration in February of ‘National Autophagy Day.’ Autophagy or the body’s innate ability to renew and recycle cells has attracted more scientific research output in Japan than in any other country. In fact, the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 2016 was awarded to Japanese scientist, Yoshinori Ohsumi. National Autophagy Day was celebrated by the government, universities and commercial members of the Japan Autophagy Consortium, each of which was responsible for drawing attention to this breakthrough discovery that can effectively slow – and possibly even reverse – our biological age. Prevention rather than cure is the aim of the Japanese and they are doing a rather good job at it.

Like Japan, Saudi Arabia has identified healthy aging as a driver of socioeconomic prosperity and announced last year their intent to invest US$1b per year through their government backed Hevolution fund into science and technology that makes a meaningful contribution to human healthspan.

So let’s return to the idea of investing in longevity and the work of Scott, Ellison and Sinclair culminating in the longevity dividend of 10x current healthcare spend. In Silicon Valley, a 10x return is famously known as a ’10 bagger’ and what every venture capitalist hopes for. With such promising prospects and celebrity billionaire investors already queuing to plant their stakes in this new field, it’s reasonable to expect growing general investor interest - hopefully with spillover benefits to the healthspan of the rest of society as well.

Leslie Kenny is Founder and CEO of Oxford Healthspan, an Oxford, England based company commercializing molecules that inhibit the hallmarks of aging and that is the only non-Japanese member of the Japan Autophagy Consortium. She is also Co-Founder of the Oxford Longevity Project and an autoimmune survivor of over 18 years.

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Leslie Kenny