How the longevity industry can deliver lives that are healthier – physically and mentally

LongeVC’s Sergey Jakimov on why mental health is an integral part of longevity care – and why investors should be enthusiastic about emerging tech opportunities.

While the mental has often played second fiddle to the physical when it comes to longevity research, this is changing – and not a moment too soon.

The physical and mental aspects of aging are interconnected, and given the strong connection between psychology and the physical pace of aging, poor mental health is starting to be recognised as a major driver of aging.

A raft of developments have demonstrated that physical lifespan and healthspan can be extended and improved, and now it is time for the longevity industry to achieve similar success when it comes to mental health. Sergey Jakimov, the CEO of Swiss investment group LongeVC agrees, and tells us why it’s time for VCs to get excited about backing startups delivering cutting-edge solutions for mental healthcare.

How the longevity industry can deliver physically and mentally healthy lives
by Sergey Jakimov

Mental health is a lasting legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic. An alarming forty per cent of American adults showed symptoms of anxiety or depression in 2020, a fourfold increase from 2019 [1]. But with lifting lockdowns, vaccine rollouts and reduced travel restrictions, this increase was hoped to be temporary – instead, rates have continued to climb.

COVID-19 thrust mental health concerns into the spotlight, but they’re not new. Anxiety and depression diagnoses have skyrocketed over the past 15 years and psychiatric prescriptions are on the rise; today, nearly one billion people live with mental health conditions [2].

Mental health is more than a collection of conditions that deserve global attention – it’s also a core component of lifespan extension. Experts report feeling lonely or unhappy can add almost two years to our biological age [3]. Disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar affect life expectancy more negatively than smoking [4]. Clearly, mental health plays a massive role in determining how long we live, as well as how happy and productive we are in those years. It’s similar to how the industry defines “healthspan.” In other words, living longer deserves a life worth living. What’s the point of living longer if the added years are not enjoyable?

It’s a pressing problem, but I don’t want to be too negative about it. Instead, I want to highlight the groundbreaking solutions on their way to market. Thanks to recent biotech advancements, we have more effective treatments for physical conditions than ever before. The longevity industry wants to build the same trajectory for mental health. Here’s how we’re doing it – and why we need to do more.

New in mental health: Treatments and technology

I’ll start by addressing something important. Severe social stigma around mental health remains. The longevity space has largely moved past this, but many people (wrongly) believe that a mental health diagnosis is something to be ashamed of. Some see asking for help as a sign of weakness, while others believe taking psychiatric medicine is “the easy way out.”

This is an extremely dangerous mindset. You wouldn’t belittle a diabetes patient for taking insulin or a cancer patient for undergoing chemotherapy. Mental health conditions deserve the same treatment and acceptance. Society’s perception of mental health is, in fact, on the brink of undergoing the same transformation we’re seeing with weight management and obesity – changing the mindset from a “mental or willpower failure” stigma to understanding it as a complex medical condition.

Step one: harness personalised medicine’s incredible power to improve mental health approaches. Mental health struggles worsen when individuals cannot access effective treatment, and treatment efficacy goes beyond a trained psychologist and an antidepressant prescription. We must consider cost, location, time constraints, insurance, and more. Our brains and chemical makeups are vastly different, and personalised medicine will address this.

Another misconception: mental healthcare is boring. The opposite is true, and it’s time for VCs to get excited about backing startups delivering cutting-edge solutions. While mental health investments dropped last year [5], transformation is coming. We’ve moved past the stereotypical image of a man with glasses asking a sad-looking person on a couch, “how does that make you feel?” Modern mental health approaches are accessible and technology-driven.

One area to watch? Startups leveraging AI to make better diagnoses and better patient-physician matches. Therapy is essential to mental health care – 75% of psychotherapy patients benefit from the experience [6]. Telehealth has streamlined therapy by connecting patients with licensed practitioners online or through apps like BetterHelp. It’s a game-changer for at-risk groups like youth. Shockingly, sixty per cent of 12-17-year-olds with major depression did not receive mental healthcare in the past year [7]. Any step toward improving these figures is a positive one.

Treatments tell a similar story. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) entered the market with Prozac in 1988. In the 30 years that followed, SSRIs dominated mental health prescriptions. But patients respond very differently to these drugs, and they sometimes need to try several options before finding one where the benefits outweigh the side effects. Many felt frustrated and stuck with the limited medications available.

Then, in 2019, Johnson & Johnson’s esketamine nasal spray, Spravato, entered the market as a new option for treatment-resistant depression. Patients taking the nose spray had 17% higher remission rates than their trial counterparts [8], a life-changing figure. I’ll note here that Spravato received the FDA’s Fast Track and Breakthrough Therapy designations during its approval. Heads up for investors, this means regulators acknowledge, support and are eager to accept new treatments in the field.

Positive signs like these led the firm I co-founded, LongeVC, to invest in psychedelics startup Freedom Biosciences. One of its co-founders, Dr John Krystal, is a psychedelics visionary – he discovered ketamine’s antidepressant effects in 2000. Alongside his work at Yale, Dr Krystal contributed to Spravato’s development, and Freedom Bio is now on a mission to make ketamine treatments more long-lasting and side-effect free.

If you haven’t heard of Spravato, you might be shocked to learn about “Special K’s” (ketamine’s street name) mental health applications. I get it, but the medicine represents an exhilarating step forward. These pioneering approaches are exactly what patients need to overcome their conditions and get on the path to longer, healthier and happier lives.

Mental health will unlock antiaging insights

Mental health is an integral part of longevity care, and investors should be enthusiastic about emerging tech opportunities. There’s another opportunity beyond treatments and investments, too. Mental health intertwines closely with brain health, and the brain offers countless aging insights. Look at neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, for example. If studying mental health reveals how different compounds affect the impacted brain areas, it is a powerful win-win scenario. There’s so much potential here that King’s College London, one of the world’s top universities, has partnered with the nonprofit Longevity Science Foundation to research synergies between mental health, psychedelics and longevity. The outcomes will change the world.

The longevity field has a responsibility to promote mental health. It’s not enough for us to say “mental health matters.” We must end stigma and include mental health in all discussions on lifespan and healthspan. I want to see more longevity investors and KOLs talking about this and putting their money where their mouth is by supporting promising ideas in the field.

I encourage the longevity community, from CEOs to enthusiasts, to explore research on the impact of new treatments like psychedelics. Only through awareness and acceptance can the industry achieve meaningful longevity progress.