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The Author Speaks

The Dangers of Trying to Live Forever

Interview with "Selling the Fountain of Youth" author, Arlene Weintraub

Q. It sounds like the Starbucks cure for aging. Why would you get plain old drip coffee when you can order a nonfat, low-sugar vanilla, extra-foam, extra-hot latte.

A. Plus, I talked to ob-gyns who say you can't tailor products that way. Your hormone levels vary throughout the day, so a single blood or saliva test doesn't tell you much. What they're promising may not be exactly accurate.

Q. Do antiaging patients understand what they're taking?

A. Some of the women I talked to didn't seem to understand they were taking estrogen. They thought they were taking something that isn't a drug, and it didn't occur to them these products might have any risks.

Q. What surprised you the most while you were reporting this story?

A. I was shocked by how many doctors are taking these substances themselves. For their patients, it's like, "If my doctor is taking these hormones, how can they be dangerous?"

Q. What types of medicine were most antiaging doctors practicing before specializing in antiaging?

A. You'll find doctors from all different specialties — from internists to emergency room doctors — but you won't find many endocrinologists in antiaging. Which is ironic, because antiaging focuses on hormone treatment.

Q. Suzanne Somers says her antiaging program is the best thing she's ever done in her life. And she looks as young, beautiful and healthy as she did in her 20s!

A. She does estrogen, testosterone and HGH, and on Oprah last year she showed a line of 60 supplement pills. She's created this perception that compounded bioidentical compounds are not synthetic drugs. I truly think she believes that. But no mainstream doctor would tell patients that hormones are not drugs. So she's created a lot of confusion.

Q. What did you think of that Oprah show?

A. It was the biggest boost the antiaging industry has ever gotten. Suzanne Somers was on the stage, while the actual medical doctors were sidelined in the audience. I interviewed one of those doctors, Lauren Streicher. She keeps running into situations where Suzanne Somers is shown as the expert, and she — the Northwestern ob-gyn [who teaches at the Feinburg School of Medicine] — is shown as some crazy lady trying to discredit Suzanne Somers!

Q. What do you say to critics who claim you've been compensated by pharmaceutical companies?

A. I laugh. I'm not sure where they're getting that idea. Some say Business Week took pharmaceutical advertising, and therefore I was getting paid by drug companies. But we had a Chinese wall between advertising and editorial, so reporters were never affected by ad sales. What's especially funny is that during my 10 years at Business Week I could count our pharmaceutical ads on one hand.

Q. Others say you must have cozy industry ties after covering the health beat for so long.

A. I actually have a record of not being very kind to the pharmaceutical industry — you can read those stories on my website. I did a series of stories on conflicts of interest in the pharmaceutical industry [read one of those stories here]. And my book takes a harsh look at pharmaceutical companies' marketing of human growth hormone. I also criticize Wyeth for not being entirely honest about selling estriol overseas while fighting its distribution in the U.S.; it looked like Wyeth was just trying to protect its Premarin franchise.

Q. This antiaging obsession makes growing old seem like something to be avoided at all cost. But it's just another part of the human experience.

A. And there's a school of thought among some doctors that the decline of hormones is protective. Because we see hormones linked to cancer, maybe it's by design that we lose hormones as we age. I personally see aging as a privilege, not something to be avoided.

Christie Findlay lives in Virginia.

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