Why acting your age is a thing of the past

  • Kendrick Brinson / Luceo for TIME

    Synchronized swimmers, all residents of the first Sun City community, prepare for a performance

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    A by-product of prosperity, amortality influences behaviors across the socio-economic spectrum and from youth to old age. But as amortals get older without "getting old," they become more conspicuous. Upturning conventions of aging isn't necessarily a bad thing, given the maturing profile of the world's population. By 2050, more than a fifth of humanity will be 60 or older, and in the U.S., the 60-pluses will make up 27% of the population. The amortal impulse to stay active, if properly directed, could help ease the anticipated labor shortage and curb swelling health care costs, but amortality is not without its risks. Amortals have a dangerous habit of trusting that science will be able to deliver them from the consequences of aging or, at a minimum, allow them to select the timing and manner of their passing if the range of products and programs promising to preserve us should fail.

    Gains in longevity have been achieved by eliminating or neutralizing many threats to our lives, but the main threat — aging — has proved more resistant to intervention. In 1961 a microbiologist called Leonard Hayflick made a depressing discovery. He found that most human cells are able to divide only a limited number of times, so that even if we get through life without contracting a single disease, we'll die when enough of our cells cease dividing. Although our life expectancy continues to increase, by two to five years per decade in the developed world, the Hayflick limit would appear to doom us to a maximum of around 120 years.

    But that doesn't stop amortals from aspiring to spend as long in their bodies as possible. There's a thriving specialist health care sector promising to help us do so, and Las Vegas is one of its hubs.

    Life, but Not as We Know It

    eighty percent of cenegenics patients are men who go there in search of Life. That's Dr. Jeffry Life (his real name), the star of a press campaign in which the physician wears snug shorts and a vest with scooped armholes, a style popular in New York City's Greenwich Village. His face is avuncular. His body is that of Mr. Universe in his prime. One advertisement for the clinic reads, "70 Years Old and Still Going Strong. Happy Birthday, Dr. Life!" I don't encounter Dr. Life in the flesh until the end of my visit, and there's little flesh on display as he goes about his doctoring in a suit, but you can see the muscles straining at the material.

    Cenegenics describes its program as a "unique and balanced combination of nutrition, exercise and hormone optimization," which sounds good for just about anyone, so I submit myself as a guinea pig. My day at the clinic involves detailed blood work, scans and tests and would usually cost $3,400. (I accepted a free consultation.) At 49, my physical condition turns out to be good but not "optimal," the Cenegenics buzzword. My consultant, Dr. Jeffrey Leake, another paragon of muscularity, tells me that the transition to "optimal" would entail a fierce program of exercise and losing 10 to 15 lb. (5 to 7 kg). Although my body mass index was logged at 19, toward the lower end of the normal range, one of the scans detected visceral fat, invisible from the outside but a hazard for heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and bad cholesterol.

    Leake also proposes starting me on two steroid hormones — DHEA and testosterone — in pill and cream form, respectively. "We will monitor for possible side effects of androgen therapy, which are acne, oiliness of skin or deepening of the voice," he e-mails later. The sex hormone estradiol, like testosterone, could improve my bone density, he adds. "And if applicable — only after a comprehensive evaluation reveals an adult-onset growth-hormone deficiency (GHD) — we may consider supplementing with a third, growth hormone."

    Underpinning these recommendations is the notion that hormone supplementation can return us to our "natural" state of youthful vibrancy, as if aging itself were against nature. It's an enticing sales pitch that helps persuade patients to sign up for further consultations and supplies of supplements that typically add up to around $1,000 per month.

    Clients often arrive on Cenegenics' doorstep in bad shape; commitment to the program — not least to paying for it — helps impose a discipline that they may have lacked. Weaned off junk food and coaxed into the gym, converts are likely to show clear benefits. But there is another reason Cenegenics patients often achieve such dramatic results, and it's the same reason tiny East Germany carried off so many Olympic gold medals. Testosterone and other steroids routinely prescribed to Cenegenics patients promote muscle mass. But taking testosterone can also cause depressed sperm production, elevated bad cholesterol, shrunken testicles, water retention and bad skin. (I declined Dr. Leake's prescription.)

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