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Can Wellness Spas Help You Live Longer?

Courtesy of Miraval Life in Balance Miraval Life in Balance.

Photo: Courtesy of Miraval Life in Balance

Everyone wants to live a long, healthy life—preferably with fewer wrinkles and sagging bits. During the past few years, I’ve certainly tried to slow down the clock by traveling to high-end holistic retreats in Arizona, Hawaii, and California to explore ways of staying young. But I’m just putting off the inevitable—a doctor’s visit, that is.

Luckily, as Mary Poppins warbles, "Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down." So, as aging boomers begin hearing their physicians mutter about colonoscopies, mammograms, and DNA damage caused by late-night partying or excessive exposure to the sun, a new generation of "wellness complexes" in the United States is incorporating progressive medical services—aimed at prolonging your life—along with spa pampering.

Unlike outpatient facilities, such as the Scripps Center for Executive Health in La Jolla, California, or the Mayo Clinics in Florida, Arizona, and Minnesota, these health institutes have an informal methodology (no scrubs, no tongue depressors). Instead of the antiseptic lip service common with typical prod-and-poke physicals, guests receive "executive checkups" complete with diagnostic tests, consultations with LifeAdvisors, and all the trimmings of a world-class hotel: massages, rounds of championship golf, Italian linens, art installations, and serious wine cellars. Such complexes represent the partnering of genetic science with the holistic world, where impassioned advocates are bringing together top medical research facilities and deep-pocket investors keenly focused on the Me Generation.

Perhaps the most scientifically aggressive of these Next Age clinics is the California WellBeing Institute (CWI), which opened in December. CWI pairs a 270-room Four Seasons hotel and spa with a high-tech medical facility on a 20-acre property in Westlake Village, northwest of Los Angeles. It’s also the brainchild of David Murdock, the CEO of Dole Food Company, who, having extremely firm opinions about following a healthy diet and fitness regimen, is putting his money where his fork usually goes. "My wife died of cancer," the 84-year-old billionaire states bluntly. "I decided right then I was going to figure out what makes people die young. She exercised but did not eat properly. You can’t get along without both." Murdock plans to open an auxiliary WellBeing Institute, sandwiched between two Four Seasons–managed resorts, the Lodges at Koele and Manele Bay, on the Hawaiian island of Lanai. As if that weren’t enough, he’s also funding an affiliated 350-acre biotechnology complex, in conjunction with Duke University and the University of North Carolina, to advance research on nutrition and human health.

At present, though, it’s CWI’s three-day Longevity Package (price tag: $2,800) from which guests can immediately reap the potential benefits of longevity science in a spa setting. Prior to check-in, guests at Westlake Village who are interested in treatments at the institute fill in a LifeQuality questionnaire that poses such tricky questions as, "If you continue living as you currently live, how many years do you feel you have left?" Once at the institute, guests meet with a specialist—part concierge, part occupational therapist—who takes them through the hard science. "We can recommend diagnostics to show you indicators that changes might be in order," says David Leary, one of the center’s LifeAdvisors. Like others on the staff, he has solid medical credentials. He was wooed from Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles and recently completed a certification program at the University of Southern California that was custom-designed for the Westlake staff. Through these tests, Leary can tell, on a cellular level, whether you’ve been overdosing on Twinkies.

In fact, CWI uses a wide range of preventive tests and imaging technology to figure out just how fast an individual’s life clock is ticking. These include such exotic diagnostics as C-Reactive Protein and DNA testing, sleep telemetry, electronic "Bod Pod" fat analyses, and 24-hour blood-pressure monitors. These are not regular "Say aah" sessions: guests spend several hours with the attending staff, which includes specialists in dental reconstruction, acupuncture, women’s health, dermatology, and medical anthropology. (That means snooping for biochemical dependencies and bad sociocultural behaviors.) These augment services typical of those found at destination spas: consultations with nutritionists and exercise physiologists, workshops on healthy living, or even unconventional treatments such as biofeedback and hypnotherapy. Too intimidating?Just opt for a massage in one of the hotel’s white-marble day-spa suites, which have fireplaces and private plunge pools.

According to Dr. Andrew Conrad, director of CWI and a geneticist by training, "Westlake is meant to be the next health mecca, not some granola-eating torture farm." That means Four Seasons guests won’t be made to feel embarrassed about ordering a juicy porterhouse and a bottle of Château Margaux in Hampton’s restaurant, where chef Sandro Gamba cuts back on butter, sugar, and refined flour. However, guests may be urged to work it off during a tai chi session on the meditation lawn. Conrad, an alternative-healing convert, asserts, "There is no wellness pill. Yoga beats Vicodin."

Meanwhile, over in Arizona, Dr. Andrew Weil will be heading up the newly created Center for Life in Balance at Miraval, which is expected to open at the end of 2007. His bedside manner and best-selling books attract followers who have been through the standard tests and know there’s more to learn about increasing life expectancy. He is also former AOL chairman Steve Case’s ace in the wellness hole. Like David Murdock, Case is emerging as a major player in the sector, buying one brand at a time. These include Miraval, the Gaiam yoga/fitness product line, and RediClinic—a growing chain of retail-based medical facilities staffed by nurse-practitioners. (Think cholesterol tests at Wal-Mart.)

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