Mark Hyman: meet the doctor who says he can make us live to 120

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Mark Hyman and I are five minutes into our chat when he picks up the phone from a fellow doctor. “Hi Eva,” he says, scurrying off. “I have to take this”. He reappears 10 minutes later. “We had to talk about a patient,” Hyman mumbles. The superstar doctor is running a seven-day retreat at the Six Senses in Ibiza: the Young Forever programme, €15,000 a head. He’s busy. He’s thriving. I feel lucky to catch him at all.

Hyman is a world-renowned physician and longevity expert; the founder and director of The UltraWellness Center in Massachusetts and Senior Advisor at the Cleveland Clinic. He is an 15-time New York Times bestselling author and the founder and chairman of the Food Fix campaign, which aims to reform the food and agriculture system in the US. His efforts to combat obesity among Americans made him into a household name when, in 2012, he helped the 15,000 congregation members of Saddleback Church, southern California, to collectively lose 250,000lb.

In 2014, he starred in Fed Up, a Netflix documentary about childhood obesity which exposed the lobbying power of Big Sugar as it blocked attempts to enact policies to address the condition, which causes one in five premature deaths in North America.

“The food industry,” Hyman says today, “has got people to rely on ultra-processed foods as a cheaper, more affordable way to get calories.” It is also responsible for peddling the misconception of whole foods as unaffordable and elitist, he adds. Obesity and food insecurity are twin issues: for decades now, Hyman has been on a mission to prove that people can eat well for less.

He despises quick fixes and seeks lasting solutions. As one of the forefathers of functional medicine, he likes to look for the root cause of things. Since he began practising in 2003, his impact has been seismic. When we talk about the limited efficacy of prescription drugs, the rise of holistic medicine or even the broken state of the National Health Service, we are engaging in the very conversations he’s been presiding over for decades. Today, he turns his attention to longevity: he’s just launched a new podcast, Health Hacks, in conjunction with his recently published Young Forever Cookbook. “People really want to know about what to eat,” Hyman says. “It’s the most fundamental thing because it drives all the pathways that relate to longevity and ageing.”

Hyman is tall and handsome, a very clever hunk, young Michael Douglas meets Christian Bale. He is one of those doctors whose Instagram follower count (2.8 million) dwarfs Edward Enninful’s (1.6 million) and whose podcast guests include Gwyneth Paltrow. He speaks quickly and confidently without raising his voice; monotonous and instructive, like an ASMR with perks. “It’s important to get people to follow a diet that’s going to activate what I call the longevity switches,” he says, using the kinds of words that make the British grimace. “I focus on treating the body as a system,” he says, and on “the fundamental pathways that activate our healing, repair, and regeneration”. “I was a yoga teacher before I became a doctor,” he adds later.

It all sounds very LA; very Goop; very glucose monitor. And yet the wider cultural interest in longevity has exploded. The Economist ran an entire series on the topic last September; just about every science or science-adjacent podcast has produced an episode on the issue (the Evening Standard’s own Brave New World has produced four); there are more than 100,000 posts linked to #biohacking on TikTok. It is the health trend of the early 2020s.

Already, Australia and the World Health Organisation have classified ageing as a disease, recognising that it is not, as our Judeo-Christian heritage would have us believe, a pre-ordained inevitability but rather a condition we can stall or reverse. There are now tests designed to determine one’s “biological age”: at 62, Hyman’s stood at 43. Now 64, he reveals it’s gone down to 39.

There are “fundamental biological dysfunctions that seem to occur across the board”, Hyman says, whether people have “heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or dementia”. “If we focus on the downstream diseases like cancer — even if we eradicate them completely — we’d extend life only by five to seven years. But if we address the underlying mechanisms of all the diseases of ageing, we may be able to extend life by a third to 120 years.”

Longevity started out as a billionaire’s pipe dream; people “who have a lot of money and don’t wanna die”, Hyman says. “There is a huge influx of energy and time” — read: cash — “going into this.” The anti-ageing industry was worth $62 billion in 2021; it is expected to increase to $93 billion by 2027.

I never understood the lure of immortality. The image of the super-rich injecting themselves with all sorts of concoctions so they can live forever in their ivory towers sounds incredibly depressing. Hyman doesn’t buy into this either. “I don’t care about living forever,” he says. “What I care about is for my lifespan and healthspan to be equal. In other words, you’re 100 years old and going on a hike, and then going to bed and dying.”

There is much to criticise about the longevity movement, notably the fact that, by raising awareness of all that afflicts us, we end up overly anxious and compound the very issues we seek to address. I for one don’t want to feel anxious about my health at 25. I like to smoke, drink and lie in on weekends. I also run and do Pilates (mat and tower, for those asking). I do this because it makes me feel good, not because I worry that every fag I smoke is taking years off my life.

But with every new health hack that hits the Spotify charts and every new anti-ageing serum placed on pharmacy shelves, the mighty power of Big Longevity is upon us — and Big Hyman with it. I see and hear his name everywhere: on targeted social media ads and health practitioners’ lips alike. I recently went and tried something called the AXO method (where a hunky French doctor massages the toxins out of your fascia — highly recommend). We got onto the topic of functional medicine; Hyman came up twice.

I ask whether the man himself thinks he might have done the wellness movement a disservice by associating with conspiracy theorists (namely Tucker Carlson and Robert F Kennedy Jr). “Tucker Carlson says a lot of things I don’t believe in,” he replies, “but he reaches a huge amount of people and he gave me a platform to talk about our national food system and what a crisis we’re in.”

The longevity industry is estimated to be worth $93 billion by 2027 (Getty Images)
The longevity industry is estimated to be worth $93 billion by 2027 (Getty Images)

Society leaves little room for “differences of opinion”, Hyman adds, including when it comes to science. Topics like food end up weaponised and become part of the culture wars, with Right-wing commentators extolling the unverified benefits of raw milk and Ron DeSantis banning lab-grown meat in Florida on account that it’s some kind of ploy by the global elite. This is bad news for Hyman, whose goal has always been to help people “take back control” of their health. But with overcomplicated information made worse by conflicts of interest, how do we know who to trust and what to eat?

Hyman, of course, will implore you to trust him. “I’ve been teaching and writing and training doctors and speaking in the media and having a podcast,” he says, “and just really trying to get this message out there that people can be empowered to run their own health.”

Key to that message is not to overthink it. Listen to Hyman, by all means: just don’t let him and his hazel eyes take over your life.

Evgeny Lebedev talks to Mark Hyman on a new episode of his podcast, out today,