March 28, 2002

Anti-aging Medicine — Science or Snake Oil?

"Look younger! Feel better! Add years to your life! Guaranteed!" So reads one advertisement for a so-called anti-aging drug.

Are anti-aging treatments for real? You might think so, after taking a spin on the Internet. A recent search produced hundreds of sites selling human growth hormone, intracellular glutathione, somastatin and other substances at hundreds of dollars an order. Most cite "scientific research" and testimonials from consumers and even doctors who claim that these mysterious substances can improve your health and reverse the aging process.

A blue-ribbon panel of experts on gerontology and medicine, however, has another term for anti-aging treatments and their health claims — Snake Oil.

The panel was put together by the International Longevity Center-USA, a not-for-profit, non-partisan policy research organization, and includes gerontologist Robert N. Butler, M.D., president of the ILC, and the bioethicist and historian David Rothman, Ph.D., of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

In its report, the panel flatly states: "There is as yet no convincing evidence that administration of any specific compound, natural or artificial, can globally slow aging in people, or even in mice or rats." It links the "anti-aging" movement to a "long chain of quacks, snake-oil salesmen and charlatans."

TheDoctor's gerontology expert, Dr. John Morley, Dammert Professor of Gerontology, Saint Louis University Medical School and Director of the Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center at the St. Louis V.A. Medical Center, agrees, saying "anti-aging medicine has no scientific validity. An example is the use of growth hormone, which, it was once thought, might prevent aging. Subsequent scientific data has provided no evidence for this and suggests that growth hormone may even shorten the life spans of older people."

Anti-aging medicine is a multi-billion dollar industry in the U.S., which, according to the ILC-USA report, "is under the control of non-scientists who use terms like 'virtual immortality' and 'an ageless society' to attract customers to untested remedies that have not withstood the rigors of serious clinical trials." A further danger of anti-aging medicine, the panel says, is that it "promotes and reinforces ageism," putting a "profoundly negative connotation on the very occurrence of aging, emphasizing its negative and depleting aspects" and denying "all that is enriching and positive about aging."

On the positive side, the panel finds "much promise" in real, current scientific research on aging, but says the hype generated by the anti-aging movement threatens to discredit serious research and discourage investment in it by philanthropists, pharmaceutical companies and government funders. Promising areas of legitimate research include restricted-calorie diets, genetic and chromosomal manipulation and treatments with antioxidants hormones like estrogen and growth hormone, and stem cells.

"While there is much exciting research on the aging process," adds Dr. Morley, "the anti-aging proponents are attempting to foresee the future. This can be very dangerous for those who consult them."

Copies of the panel's report, released February 26, 2002, may be downloaded from the ILC-USA website, (under Publications).

Reviewed by: John E. Morley, M.D.
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