Given that the Fountain of Youth seems nowhere to be found, tech-driven innovations are the next best bet for looking and feeling younger. Experts predict that the next decade will bring more options than ever for smoothing wrinkles, soothing aches and otherwise delaying the effects of aging. A body of evidence awaits.
Imagine yourself on a Saturday night 10 years from now, getting set to head out for a nice dinner. Happily, the person staring back from the mirror is holding up well. (And no, you certainly haven't "had work done.") Technology is (literally) picking up the slack.
Let's face facts. A long week and a not-great night's sleep have left your eyes tired and puffy. But instead of slathering on concealer and hoping for dim restaurant lighting, you whip out your magic wand and wave it over those undereye bags. And just like that, you look more rested and alert (read: younger).
That wand isn't magic, though. The technology it uses exists today, but currently an office visit to a plastic surgeon or dermatologist is one of the few ways to indulge in its restorative powers. In the future a home appliance for treating tired eyes may be available. Exilis, Venus Freeze and CoolSculpting are all noninvasive cosmetic treatments that apply carefully controlled cold or heat to zap fat, tighten skin and sculpt a younger, leaner face and body. Each works slightly differently. Cold exposure triggers a cell-death mechanism in fat cells, according to Kristine Tatsutani, Ph.D., chief technology officer for CoolSculpting, while heat treatments such as radio frequency waves delivered by Exilis target deep tissue to flush fat from your body while coaxing collagen to tighten skin.
The next order of business is to eliminate frown lines. You reach for your bottle of "miracle molecule" and shake out a few drops. More than just a run-of-the-mill moisturizer, this serum stimulates collagen production and makes your mouth appear noticeably younger. It belongs to the category of lotions referred to as cosmeceuticals, which blur the boundary between cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, and will be mainstream soon enough. "Advances in topical ingredients may provide additive benefits as alternatives to treatments that people now must get from a doctor, such as Botox and collagen injections," says Barbara Green, a registered pharmacist and vice president of clinical affairs at NeoStrata, a dermatologist-developed skincare line. "They work within the skin's gel matrix to build volume and enhance plumping."
Turning sideways, you check out your slinky new dress. All is well, courtesy of a trip to the body-sculpting spa, where there was ready access to treatments like a pro version of the magic wand to trim fat and firm skin in areas that are resistant to weight loss. Your stomach is flatter than it's been in a decade and your arms are so trim you can see lean muscles.
Smiling at your reflection, you almost effortlessly apply some eyeliner. Without contacts or glasses, your eyesight is nearly perfect, thanks to corneal implants — technology that is evolving so quickly, a vision upgrade in the next decade is probable.
Corneal inlays, tiny pinhole lenses that fit over the pupils of your eyes, can restore age-related vision loss. They are already available in Europe and are awaiting FDA approval in the U.S. In another decade, people with vision impairment due to cloudy corneas might receive artificial ones engineered from polymers instead of human tissue, says Marguerite McDonald, M.D., a professor of ophthalmology at NYU Langone Medical Center.
Bionic eyes are also on the horizon. In overseas clinical trials, microchips (the size of a freckle) are being embedded subretinally in patients' eyes to capture light much like a digital camera does, then transmit it directly to the optic nerve. This essentially restores partial vision to people blinded by retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease, says Eberhart Zrenner, M.D., of Retina Implant AG.
You're now at the restaurant and contemplating what to order. Reflexively, you consult an app on your phone. Instead of pulling up a menu, it tallies how many calories you can indulge in without negating all the hard work (and technology) that went into making you look so firm and fit in your little black sheath.
The app is continuously collecting data from three little jewels on your right arm. They look like bling but are actually medical-grade sensors that measure your activity level, heart rate, caloric intake and other vitals. This high-tech body monitoring is actually an affordable reality right now. The BodyMedia Wireless LINK armband ($149) is just one such device already on the market. It collects biometric physiological data to calculate calorie burn and sends that information to a smartphone in real time. And the devices will just keep getting smaller. Proteus Digital Health has developed a sensor so tiny it fits inside a pill. Swallowed, it will track medications as they pass through your body, sending physiological data via a wearable patch to your smartphone (or a caregiver). As sensors shrink even further, we may have them embedded in our bodies, says Eric Topol, M.D., chief academic officer of Scripps Health in San Diego. "You could have a sensor the size of a grain of sand in your bloodstream that provides early detection of cancer, heart attack or type 1 diabetes," he says.
Meanwhile, a quick scan of your data reveals stress stats are a bit high. Your husband's numbers remind him that he should watch his cholesterol and pass on the steak. While checking in virtually on other family members, you notice your 99-year-old mother's blood pressure is a little low.
Going forward, as more people opt to wear some form of body monitor, sharing health data with family and friends will change the way we care for loved ones. Eventually, you may be able to access information about your aging mom no matter where she lives, simply by glancing at your phone. The bottom line: Life as a member of the so-called Sandwich Generation could become a lot simpler and less stressful.
Another area in which tech advances could make a significant difference in longevity is tissue engineering. "This may be the next great advance in medicine," says Nina Tandon, Ph.D., an electrical and biomedical engineer at Columbia University who is researching how to grow cardiac cells in the lab. Body parts like cartilage, ligaments and skin are easier to replicate than complicated hearts and livers, says Tandon. "In the not-too-distant future, you may have a conversation with your doctor about, for instance, whether you should have ligament surgery now or wait five weeks to grow a new one," she says.
Soon, too, prosthetics will mimic real limbs to a mind-boggling degree. "After seeing amputees compete at the Olympic level, I think people will start to look at prostheses in an entirely different way," says Alena Grabowski, Ph.D., a research professor at the University of Colorado Locomotion Laboratory. "Today's leg prostheses are already functional, but smart prostheses, those that can move in response to a person's intent and offer sensory feedback so you can 'feel' what a plastic or metal limb touches, are on the drawing board."
Even more sci-fi is the idea of prostheses that enhance natural ability. Companies like the California-based Ekso Bionics are currently building mechanical exoskeletons that help paraplegics walk. This technology may one day be used to help ordinary people accomplish extraordinary tasks such as climbing mountains or lifting objects many times the person's size.
Suffice it to say, in 10 years you won't quite be in Bionic Woman territory — but you can probably expect to live longer, with a better quality of life. The same technology that makes smartphones and iPads so smart is about to change our bodies for the better. And the future — seen clearly through corneal inlays — has never looked brighter.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.