SAY WHAT?

The Strange Health Experiments Of Silicon Valley’s Wealthy Elite

As a tech titan dies amid reports that he tried to live on low oxygen, here’s a look at other fads.

The Strange Health Experiments Of Silicon Valley’s Wealthy Elite
Image: Getty Images

What would you do to live forever, or at least improve your health and extend your life? While most of us are spending our time emptying chocolate boxes, some are expending time and effort into strange attempts to extend healthy life. Many are based in Silicon Valley, the home of tech giants and of Calico, a Google-backed company that has spent the past seven years researching the biology of ageing. 

One Silicon Valley stalwart, Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos, an online shoe business that was sold to Amazon for US$1.2 billion ($1.6 billion), died in a fire last November, reportedly after spending the night in a shed with a heater that would deliberately lower the oxygen level. Until his demise, he was trying a range of odd ways to stay healthy, including inhaling laughing gas and depriving himself of oxygen. 

He was not alone in Silicon Valley. “These people are incredibly smart and driven and interested in so many different things,” says Colin Selman, a professor of biogerontology at the University of Glasgow. “The quest to understand ageing is one of the great scientific mysteries.” 

But what methods are the tech elite using — and do they work?

Hypoxia 

Hsieh, who died aged 46, is reported to have spent his final months in confined spaces, including sheds, with heaters that would deliberately lower the oxygen level in the room — something designed to trigger hypoxia (low blood oxygen), which some long-lifers believe can extend your life by altering the way genes operate. 

The theory is based on the longevity of Tibetans living in mountain air, which is thinner and starved of oxygen. A 2016 paper by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Science suggested that living in conditions with less oxygen may have accounted for a higher proportion of men in Tibet living to 100 or beyond compared to the rest of China. 

Yet, the same researchers noticed that Tibetans had rates of hypertensive heart disease that was more than twice the level of the next-worst Chinese province, and death rates for cerebrovascular diseases, affecting blood flow to the brain, and other circulatory issues were higher than anywhere else in China. 

The biological principle is called hormesis, Selman says. “You can induce low-level stress over a long period of time and it doesn’t damage or kill the individual, but increases protective reactions.” But given that hypoxia is one of the warning signs of Covid-19, going into your garden shed with a space heater isn’t recommended. 

Hsieh was also reported to have taken regular doses of nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas or hippy crack, in the months leading up to his death. The reason isn’t exactly clear, although nitric oxide, an entirely separate molecule, has been heralded as an anti-ageing wonder. 

“I haven’t come across anything related to [nitrous oxide],” says Richard Faragher, a professor of biogerontology at the University of Brighton. “But that doesn’t mean it isn’t out there.”

Digital generated image of brain made out of plants, grass and flowers on purple background.
Image: Getty Images

Caloric restriction 

Many of us eat too much. But Silicon Valley executives often tamp down their appetite to extreme levels. Caloric restriction is the technical name for fasting — something we’ve known has biological benefits since the 1920s, when it was initially tested on rats, which had a longer lifespan as a result. Since then, tests have been successfully conducted on other animals, including non-human primates. It’s enough evidence to convince Jack Dorsey, the Twitter founder, who reportedly eats only one meal a day. 

“Fasting is achievable,” Selman says. But not at the levels often seen in the lab. “The issue with caloric restriction is you need to have 30 or 40 percent less food than you’d normally eat, and do it over a period of decades. For most people, it’s not going to be achievable.” 

Silicon Valley has long been at the cutting edge of innovation, but it’s always worth bearing in mind some basic principles before deciding to try out these ideas, Faragher cautions. “It is usually a bad idea to start medicating yourself if you’re not sick,” he says. “Once upon a time, we had a different word for that: hypochondriacs.”

Parabiosis 

Laboratory mice go through a lot, but spare a thought for those being tested to prove that parabiosis works. The principle is simple and has proven to work in what science calls “model organisms”: you take an old mouse and graft a living, young mouse on to it, connecting the blood vessels so the old mouse receives the young mouse’s blood. It reverses the ageing process. 

“I cannot imagine anyone going in for parabiosis,” Faragher says. “You’d have to find a tissue donor and it’d have to be someone you’re very friendly with. And I imagine even the closest friendship could get quite testy after six months.” 

Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, has expressed an interest in a less intrusive version of parabiosis — receiving injections of young blood — for which he was criticised. “The vampire accusations were the craziest,” he told The New York Times.

Senolytics 

Another “nice in principle, more complicated in practice” solution is the field of senolytics, drugs that eliminate senescent cells in the body. 

“When your cells get older, they continually divide, then they stop dividing and become senescent,” Selman says. “These senescent cells can release various chemicals that induce damage to other cells.” Senolytic treatments target the senescent cells, stopping them from causing mischief. 

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Thiel have invested in the biotech startup Unity Biotechnology, which researches senescent cells and osteoarthritis in humans. “I’m 100 percent positive that senolytics will find an application in age-related conditions,” Faragher says. 

“I’m far less sanguine about the ‘Good morning, dear, don’t forget to take your immortality pill’ side of the discussion.”

Whole body replacement 

Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, rarely lets barriers get in his way, and often has enormous success, not least in his SpaceX rocket launches into outer space. A company he founded in 2016 is trying something even harder than space flight: Neuralink wants to develop implantable interfaces connecting human brains to computers. Musk’s goal? “If your biological self dies, you can upload into a new unit,” he said. “Literally.”

It is usually a bad idea to start medicating yourself if you’re not sick… once upon a time, we had a different word for that: we called them hypochondriacs.”

Richard Faragher, professor of biogerontology at University of Glasgow

Extending telomeres 

There was great excitement a couple of months back when Israeli scientists claimed to have extended the length of telomeres, the small caps that sit at the end of our chromosomes and protect our DNA. Telomeres shorten as we age and when they become too short, cells become damaged. The academics managed to extend telomeres by feeding elderly test subjects pure oxygen in a hyperbaric chamber. Problem solved, you might think. “But the study is relatively small, and there isn’t much in the way of a mechanism,” Faragher says. 

The science of telomeres is often disputed. One of the hottest buys in Silicon Valley in the late 2010s was a US$99 ($132) telomere length test developed by a firm called Telomere Diagnostics that was later discredited by its employees. “The test is garbage,” one unnamed worker told reporters in 2018. “I didn’t believe in the science.” (The company published a peer-reviewed study in 2017 that said its techniques were scientifically valid.)

Dopamine fasting 

The Silicon Valley trend of dopamine fasting, where you stop eating and drinking and switch off external stimuli (yes, that includes Facebook notifications), aims to reset your body and mind from the constant flushes of dopamine we receive from the torrent of information on our smart devices, television screens and phones. 

Created by Cameron Sepah, a Californian psychiatrist, the theory is that we’ve become inured to dopamine and have forgotten how to enjoy things. Academics say it’s not a bad thing to turn off your phone for a bit, but it doesn’t have the ability to reset your body as claimed.

Digital generated image of lungs made out of moss, grass, plants and flowers on blue background.
Image: Getty Images

Microdosing 

While some people are cutting back on their dopamine to improve productivity, others are taking a different tack. Microdosing involves ingesting small amounts of psychoactive substances, such as magic mushrooms or LSD, to improve alertness. Think of it as Silicon Valley’s answer to your days of taking industrial levels of Pro Plus to get through school and university exams. It’s been around for a decade among tech folks. Joe Rogan, a popular podcast host who has interviewed Musk, has professed to microdosing magic mushrooms. 

Avoiding electromagnetic fields 

Her husband has invented an app that makes us spend more time on our mobile phones, but supermodel Miranda Kerr is keen to avoid them. Kerr, who is married to Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel, told journalists in 2019 that she had placed stickers on the back of her phone in an attempt to ward off electromagnetic fields (EMF). She also said that she possesses a Geiger counter-esque machine that purportedly picks up signals of radiation, which is emitted at low levels from phones and wifi routers. 

There’s no scientific evidence that EMF is damaging, nor is there evidence that attaching a sticker to your phone would help to stop it. 

“You want to support your partner and everything they believe,” Spiegel told a journalist, adding that he didn’t let his wife add a sticker to his phone. But Spiegel still seems happy for Kerr to use alkaline filters to alter the pH of their drinking water to between 7.5 and 7.9, and to use Palo Santo wood, native to South America, “to clear the energy” in their home.

Text from The Times/The Interview People

This story first appeared in the January/ February 2021 issue of A Magazine.

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