Playing the long game | Monocle

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Wellness is an irritating word, isn’t it? It’s everywhere – on shop signs, tote bags and infrared blankets – but what does it actually mean? At May’s Longevity Med Summit in Lisbon (slogan: “Committed to global wellness”), pharmacological enthusiasts and celebrity dentists were giving talks with titles such as, “Proteomic profiling platform for the molecular assessment of lifestyle and age-related implications”.  Whenever I asked someone to define the W-word, their slick shtick disintegrated into a jumble of “umms” and “ahhs”. This is wellness’s power: it is indefinable. 

Longevity, on the other hand, isn’t such an irritating word – yet. May’s summit, hosted at the gleaming Carlos Lopes Pavilion in the Portuguese capital’s sky-scraping Parque Eduardo vii, is part of a fledgling movement to increase its ubiquity. The speakers’ list featured a constellation of MDs and PhDs, many of whom have dedicated their careers to researching areas of medicine now talked up as the key to prolonging human life. Those doing the talking up aren’t usually as qualified as those who are doing the research. They are people such as Dave Asprey, the blue-light-blocking eyeglass-wearing inventor of bulletproof coffee and host of the podcast Human Upgrade, who is 51 but “identifies” as 39. Or Peter Attia, co-author of the best-selling Outlive: The Science & Art of Longevity, who regularly takes rapamycin, a drug normally prescribed to people who have undergone organ transplants.


Both men, and many others on the longevity scene, enthusiastically perform the role of human guinea pigs – trying out things like blood washing and veganism – in a frenzied attempt to extend their lives. The Lisbon summit reflects a wider attempt to wrest scientific authority from these people while harnessing the commercial potential their popularity reveals. It is mostly a b2b event – the lecture hall is ringed with pop-up stands promoting vitamin supplements, Bavarian clinics and space-age technologies. The most eye-catching of these is RLab, a Shanghai-based manufacturer of medical devices intended to aid longevity such as hyperbaric oxygen and sensory-deprivation chambers. Throughout the two days of the event, a steady stream of people were busy queuing up to give these machines a try. 

Unlike the other stands, which usually have at least one semi-medical professional on hand to explain the science behind their product, RLab’s seems to be staffed entirely by marketing and sales representatives. At one point the aroma of Burger King wafts across from the direction of a couple of crumpled RLab employees. It is, of course, a sign of the longevity movement’s growing saleability that the great factories of the Yangtze Delta are now hastily producing its mechanical appurtenances. 

Some of the scientific research and treatments on show are staggering but let’s leave proteomic profiling for a moment. Instead, I will focus on the most frequently cited contributors to a long and healthy life preached by the speakers and salespeople at the Longevity Med Summit. It may surprise you, given the vast oceans of drugs and data devoted to understanding the key to a longer life, that none of these is either expensive or arcane. After all the PowerPoints and pie charts, I gleaned that the most scientifically proven things one needs to live longer are good sleep, regular exercise, a balanced diet and a vibrant social life. A Harvard University study, conducted across 85 years and published in April 2023, concluded that strong personal relationships are most likely to cause happiness and contentment, and therefore aid longevity. So the next time your hand hovers above an infrared blanket, pick up your phone and arrange to meet your friends for a drink instead. — L

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