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28 June 2023

How to live forever

Oliver Zolman, doctor to millionaires, on the science of longevity.

By Sophie McBain

Oliver Zolman, longevity doctor to the super-rich, has a clinic above a vacant lot in Cambridge. On the day I arrived, he had just taken delivery of a radio frequency machine, used for skin rejuvenation. The device, the size of a small fridge, would cost $160,000 new, but Zolman knows a guy. He often buys his equipment from US clinics that have gone bust. Inside the treatment room were crammed an ultrasound machine, a laser, a muscle-stimulating machine that in half an hour gives the user a workout equivalent to doing 20,000 sit-ups, a massage table, an exercise bike, a guitar, video equipment and three large computer screens behind two ergonomic chairs, one equipped with bicycle pedals. The chair has helped Zolman overcome a back injury he incurred playing ultimate frisbee.

Zolman, 29, is tall and thin, having spent most of the past decade on an anti-ageing, low-calorie diet. He wore a loose, white, open-necked shirt and necklace, black trousers and big trainers. He had recently returned from a holiday partying in Mykonos, but the salmon sperm he has injected under his eyes has been showing great promise in reducing his dark circles. 

Zolman rose to prominence when he was named as the doctor to Bryan Johnson, the 45-year-old American tech entrepreneur who recently made headlines for injecting himself with his 17-year-old son’s plasma in an experimental bid to reduce his biological age. Johnson speaks to Zolman for an hour a day and spends £1.6m a year on a team of doctors and other experts who devise his extreme longevity programme, dubbed “Project Blueprint”. Johnson has created a 37-minute video of his typical morning routine that might be inspirational or might be one of the most poignant studies of loneliness you’ll ever see. It shows the tech tycoon padding around his house buff and shirtless, knocking back handfuls of pills (he takes around 80 a day), drinking tablespoons of olive oil hunched over the sink, powering through a bowl of pureed vegetables the colour and consistency of pond weed, and solemnly crunching his abs in front of a rainforest mural in an empty gym. He is said to have taken more than 33,000 images of his bowels, and to sleep with a device that monitors his erections.

Couldn’t Johnson save himself a lot of hassle by instead seeing a therapist about his fear of ageing, I asked Zolman. He seemed confused by the question. Johnson’s routine is “partly media hype” and “doesn’t take that long”, he said: Johnson does an hour’s exercise a day, and because he has a private chef his “diet is completely automated, so it takes literally 15 minutes a day”. Johnson spends no more time on his longevity routine than the average person spends on “meal prep and food management”, Zolman continued, apart from on the days when he has an MRI scan or flies somewhere to undertake a major treatment, such as the plasma transfusion. (The transfusion, incidentally, “didn’t work”, perhaps because Johnson is already “so healthy”: one challenge is working out how the many experimental treatments he undergoes will “stack”.)

[See also: Can we live forever?]

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Zolman grew up in Cambridge and has a medical degree from King’s College London, where he also earned a BSc in regenerative medicine. He pays himself only £15,000 a year and puts the rest of his money into his business. He lives with a housemate, a good friend who isn’t emulating his low-calorie diet. “He’s on, like, a diet of pure cake, it’s chill,” Zolman said, before growing serious and adding that his friend is fine because he goes to the gym a lot, but otherwise would be at risk of developing insulin resistance.

Zolman described himself as a “good networker”, who started going to longevity conferences when he was an undergraduate. He was always the youngest guy in the room. He said he cannot name his other clients, who are often referred to him by other doctors in his network. They choose him, he said, for his “super credibility” and “irrefutable evidence”, and because he’s developed a protocol to measure the biological age of organs and claims that, by 2030, he will be able to reduce the biological age of all 81 organs in a healthy 80-year-old to 60. Zolman showed me some more equipment: “the world’s best hearing machine” for measuring the biological age of ears (Johnson’s ears have aged prematurely because he likes to shoot guns; he’s had gene therapy injections in his cochlear that seem to have helped), another for measuring the age of his eyes.

As a trainee doctor, Zolman was frustrated with the slow pace of innovation in the NHS. “You’re never going to be able to try these new things that are all stuck in clinical trials and are siloed between 100 different medical specialties. And I was, like, what if I try to do every single possible age- and disease-modifying therapy, whether that’s a regenerative medicine therapy or a preventative therapy or a lifestyle therapy or an advanced therapy, whether that’s genome therapy or stem cell therapy – do that all on one person and see what happens?” he said. He’s committed to peer-reviewing and publishing his results.

Many fellow doctors are unconvinced by this approach. “There are better ways to stay healthy than to spend your millions on biohacking,” Richard Siow, the director of ageing research at King’s College London, told me, underlining that the best approach we know of to keep people healthy longer is simple measures such as promoting a healthy diet and exercise. Zolman has “radical views” and is “fringe at best”, Siow continued. “I won’t say his views and therapeutics are negative or bad in any way, but they are just not validated.” 

Charles Brenner, the chief scientific adviser at ChromaDex, a Los Angeles-based bioscience company dedicated to healthy ageing, is also sceptical of Zolman’s claims that he can meaningfully monitor the biological age of organs. Private companies offering ageing biomarker tests have proliferated in recent years, he said, but many of the tests don’t agree with each other and a person’s results can fluctuate day to day. “People are over-interpreting these biomarkers,” Brenner said, “that’s where Bryan Johnson is deceiving himself.” Sometimes, Brenner acknowledged, extreme athletes and biohackers learn things through trial and error that have eluded scientists: regular steroid users knew about “roid rage” before the phenomenon was scientifically documented, for instance. But given that alcohol and drug use are associated with lower life expectancy, Brenner is concerned that taking multiple off-prescription pills and supplements such as human growth hormone will actually have a detrimental effect.

Since Johnson detailed his rejuvenation routine to Bloomberg in January, Zolman has been inundated with requests – some of them “ridiculous, like: give me a head transplant”. He has big ambitions. He is launching a longevity school for other doctors and has developed three levels of longevity programme: Johnson is on level three, the most extreme, while level one is, in theory, accessible to anyone and mostly involves eating a low-calorie diet, exercising regularly and not smoking. Participants can compete with one another on his self-designed “rejuvenation leaderboard”. (Johnson loves the competitive element.)

Zolman claimed to have reversed the greyness in Johnson’s hair, as confirmed by a biopsy. He picked up on my surprise and incredulity. “If you can’t reverse grey hair, you can’t reverse cardiac ageing, come on!” he said. You wouldn’t believe how many doctors at longevity conferences have grey hair, he told me, as he ushered me out of his clinic. “A rejuvenation doctor with grey hair lacks credibility. That’s like trusting a dentist with no teeth,” he continued, laughing, though not exactly joking.

[See also: Why read life-writing?]

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This article appears in the 28 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The war comes to Russia