02 NOVEMBER 2019
WOULD YOU WANT TO FIND OUT IF YOU'LL GET DEMENTIA?
The VIP MOT industry is booming, promising a longer and healthier life for those willing to part with (lots of) cash. But is it worth it?
Photo: JASON PIETRA/TRUNK ARCHIVE
The Fitbit bore. Is there anything worse? And yet here I am on a sticky night in London wired up to no less than three wearables. First there is my FreeStyle glucose monitor: a hair-thin needle stuck to the underside of my arm. Then there is my Firstbeat: two electrodes, one under a rib and another above my collarbone, assessing my heart-rate variability. Next up is my WatchPAT: an electrode and a clamp on my index finger that uses “peripheral arterial tone” technology to minutely monitor sleep apnoea.
These gizmos are part of the package from Viavi, an executive MOT service set up by the preventive health pioneer Dr Sabine Donnai in 2009. As well as having these bits of tech attached to me, my freezer is packed full of vials containing my spit, urine and the rest. These are bound for labs in Spain, Germany and the US, where they will be tested for everything from adrenal stress and environmental toxin levels to gut microbiome imbalances and nutrient malabsorption, and my DNA will be decoded to find out if I am at risk of, say, getting an aneurysm or Alzheimer’s disease.
This exhaustive profile will enable Viavi to create a personal strategy to ensure optimum health until the day I (hopefully painlessly) die. At £15,000 for a 12-month membership (or £10,000 for a one-off series of tests), it may well be the most expensive health MOT in the world, but according to Donnai, 57, a former clinical director at Bupa, it is a no-brainer for those who can afford it.
It is a brisk ten-minute walk from Viavi’s discreet Harley Street residence to the new Lanserhof at the Arts Club, a satellite of the German health spa and the first “medical gym” in this country. As well as a new 3-Tesla MRI and a 3D body scanner called a Styku that can analyse all that sneaky visceral fat round your organs, it has a spine and movement lab, developed for the aerospace industry, which can pick up on joint-load irregularity years before a kneecap or a hip needs to be replaced. Membership, which starts at £6,500 a year, includes access to a cryotherapy chamber, a mineral-infusions suite and, for an extra £1,000, butler service. A longer, better life is not promised, but it is certainly implied. And that, surely, is priceless (or at least very expensive).
Back to Viavi, where the various possibilities of my future decline are being assessed. But do I really want to know if I am at risk of Alzheimer’s? Don’t I have enough to worry about? “In the case of early onset Alzheimer’s, I think it is hugely important for you to know,” Donnai says. “You can’t prevent yourself from getting it, but if you can postpone it from 70 to 95, why not?”
And she would “definitely want to know” if she was “stimulating the genetic risk” by, say, taking in benzine while walking down Marylebone High Street or by drinking out of plastic bottles or using a certain sunscreen. “Then, one might consider wearing a microfiltering mask, which is especially important if you are a cyclist. And increasing your detoxification support with green cruciferous vegetables, green juices, drinking plenty of water and having infrared saunas.”
While these suggestions are obviously helpful, not all the information being offered by the booming private health-screening industry is as useful as it promises. Take the explosion in popularity of telomere testing kits that are widely available at the better medispas, along with Botox and infrared facials.
Telomeres are the shoelace-like tips on the ends of DNA strands that help to protect DNA from damage. The suggestion is that the longer the telomere, the lower your biological age. However, according to many in the scientific community, longer telomeres could also be associated with an increased risk of certain types of cancer. And besides, just because the testes of mice that were genetically engineered to have longer telomeres became less shrivelled, does it follow that it will do the same for us? As Dr Mary Armanios of the telomere centre at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore disparagingly noted in a report for the Mayo Clinic last year, telomere testing for now “may be considered a form of molecular palm reading”. While it is all very well having the means to have an MRI scan whenever you want, where for the HNWH (high-net-worth hypochondriac) does it all end?
Dr Kira Kubenz, founder of the Hamburg- based genetic testing company IhreGene and a favoured genetic counsellor for the 0.001 per cent, says there are certain diseases she would never test for, “those I cannot prevent, like Huntington’s, or motor neurone disease”. Kubenz, a former scientific director of preventive medicine at Dresden International University, has clients in Kiev, Dubai, Montreux, Zurich and London; appointments cost from £2,500 (bloods, ECGs and so forth are extra) and result in an 80-page bound report with advice about how to manage your particular genetic risk.
Like Donnai, she believes that it is crucial to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to health. “Although your genes stay the same throughout your lifetime, they can behave differently according to lifestyle and environment,” she says. “If you have a genetic risk for cancer, for example, cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage or broccoli can switch on the tumour-suppressor gene. Obviously it depends on the quantity of toxins you already eat, but just 150mg of broccoli or a handful of cabbage a day can have an effect.”
Similarly, she says, if your sequencing reveals that you poorly metabolise certain drugs such as codeine, for example, “you should know that what might be tolerated by someone else could potentially result in an overdose for you. The key message is: nobody is the same.”
Professor Michael Snyder, a director of genetics and personalised medicine at Stanford University in California, who sports no fewer than nine wearables, believes that no one can be overtested. For the past three years Snyder has been biotracking 109 people, including himself, to see the effects of lifestyle and the environment on individual DNA. Of those 109 participants, 55 (including himself) learnt that they were pre-diabetic. One person discovered that he had early stage lymphoma, another that the heart medication he was taking had increased his risk of having an attack.
So far, so illuminating. But Snyder also believes we should be checking our children while they are still in the womb, which brings up a raft of thorny issues including gene editing and data privacy, the ethics of which are still very much up for debate.
Three weeks on and I am back at Viavi to get my results. Thankfully I am not genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s or osteoporosis and I am not at risk of getting an aneurysm. I am also genetically lactose intolerant, sleep appallingly (odd, given that I thought I could sleep for Britain) and, according to my BrainMaster assessment that measures the electrical activity of my brain, there is a clear indication that I have sustained some kind of “closed head” injury (that is, the brain being shaken on the brainstem after falling off a horse, falling down skiing, being dropped as a baby – it could be anything, apparently). This can be associated with all sorts of things, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, disassociation syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
The biggest significant genetic risk is that my cells do not “methylate” properly, which means that my DNA is not great at repairing itself when exposed to certain toxins. It’s funny, I instinctively knew that it was alcohol and burning my toast that triggered my grade I breast cancer 13 years ago, and here it is, pretty much, on paper.
We cannot know where all this big data and exponential health technology is taking us. But if it is possible, as Donnai puts it, “to die young at a ripe old age” then yes, I am all for it.