Their go-to treatments are steroids, human growth hormone and bioidentical hormones, which they believe offer a natural way to regain youth. Many aging Americans believe it too, which is why the antiaging business has boomed into an $88 billion industry.
But mainstream scientific researchers say these treatments are unproven and may raise the risk of cancer and other diseases. And watchdog groups accuse antiaging doctors of promoting dangerous treatments without warning patients of potential risks.
Arlene Weintraub, who spent 10 years as a science reporter at Business Week, first wrote about antiaging in 2006. Her new book, Selling the Fountain of Youth: How the Anti-Aging Industry Made a Disease Out of Getting Old — And Made Billions, takes readers behind the scenes at the aging clinics, compounding pharmacies and for-profit businesses that are working to legitimize antiaging medicine. (Read an excerpt from Selling the Fountain of Youth.) Prepare to be scared — and challenged — by what she discovered.
Q. What started the modern antiaging movement?
A. In 1990, scientist Daniel Rudman published a sensational study. He gave human growth hormone (HGH) to about a dozen healthy men over 60. They significantly increased their lean body mass, including muscle, and they lost about 14 percent of their fat.
Q. How did we get from a single splashy study to an entirely new industry?
A. A small group of doctors latched on to the idea that if you replace your hormone levels to where they were in your 30s, you'll feel as great as you did back then. Rudman's study inspired the formation of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine and has been cited on the Web something like 50,000 times.
Q. What are the cornerstones of the antiaging industry?
A. It started with HGH and expanded into alternative estrogen and progesterone products for menopause, as well as testosterone, which has recently become quite a sensation in this industry. It's being prescribed not just to men, but also to help improve women's libido.
Q. What are proponents claiming about these products?
A. They say if you replace those hormones, you can prevent osteoporosis, shield yourself from Alzheimer's, improve your sleep, lose weight, gain muscle mass and boost your sex drive.
Q. Does any good science support those claims?
A. Antiaging doctors often say HGH is one of the most studied hormones. Well, that's true, but many of those studies were in children with growth hormone deficiencies, and you can't extrapolate from those children to healthy adults. The original Rudman study of HGH in adults was very small, and some scientists have been disturbed by the popularity of it. Some antiaging doctors twist the research to fit their viewpoints.
Q. Why aren't there any better, more long-term studies?
A. They're expensive. Also, it's hard to recruit patients without knowing the risks and benefits. And you can't expose patients to something that might be a cancer-causing agent. For example, one study looked at a patient who took HGH for longevity and ended up developing cancer. You can't make a direct link, but there's enough suspicion that it would be unethical to do a longevity study.
Q. What are mainstream doctors' biggest concerns about the safety of antiaging medicine?
A. One of the biggest safety issues is with the bioidentical hormones, which are supposed to be chemically identical to those your body produces. They're estrogen and progesterone products derived from yams and soybeans. Many neighborhood pharmacists are able to compound their own creams, gels and injectable pellets.
The pharmaceutical industry also offers hormones derived from plant sources, but many antiaging doctors say those versions are synthetic while compounded versions are not. Antiaging doctors say things like, "We've invented these great bioidentical products, they're from nature, they're perfectly safe for you to take the rest of your life."