The risks of anti-aging medicine

Story highlights

  • Thousands of physicians are catering to the baby boomers who are hoping to feel younger
  • Some unproven treatments for anti-aging are risky hormone therapies and fad diagnoses
  • Steven R. Goldstein, M.D., says two key nutrients for anti-aging are calcium and vitamin D
  • The anti-aging industry is expected to gross more than $291 billion worldwide by 2015

(<a href="" target="_blank"></a>)Hanneke Hops wasn't afraid of dying. What concerned her was growing old and not being able to run marathons, ride horses, or fly planes. So the 56-year-old Hayward, California, woman turned to Alan Mintz, M.D. -- a radiologist who founded the Cenegenics Medical Institute in Las Vegas, which specializes in "age management medicine."

She was prescribed recombinant human growth hormone (HGH), a synthetic version of a pituitary hormone hawked as a miraculous fountain of youth. Though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warns that taking HGH poses serious health risks, Hops -- unaware there was any harm -- began injecting it into her thigh six times a week.
She never did grow old. Six months later, in 2004, she was dead, her liver full of malignant tumors. While it is impossible to prove that HGH therapy contributed to Hops's death, the use of HGH has been linked to an increased risk of cancer. (Mintz said at the time of Hops's death that Hops would not have been treated if he knew she had cancer.)
    Today, thousands of physicians are catering to the 78 million baby boomers who are hoping to feel younger, longer -- and willing to pay for the privilege. The anti-aging industry is expected to gross more than $291 billion worldwide by 2015.
      The problem is, many of these so-called anti-aging doctors are making empty promises. "They're one step above snake oil salesmen," says Steven R. Goldstein, M.D., a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York University School of Medicine. They prey on women who have legitimate medical concerns such as poor sleep, flagging energy, and libido loss, he says, yet they often lack the training required to treat those problems.
      Even worse, they peddle therapies -- most notably, the unapproved use of hormones like HGH and customized drug cocktails -- which are unproven and can even be deadly.
        The rise of the anti-aging doc
        Once, middle-aged women sought out a gynecologist for menopausal symptoms, or an internist for fatigue. Now a new brand of doctor is promising to treat the above, and deliver much more: better sex, a fitter body, dewier skin.
        "They often try to convince people that aging is their fault: 'If you listen to us, we can fix the problem,' " says S. Jay Olshansky, Ph.D., a research associate at the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago.
        Yet aging is a natural process, not a medical condition, and there isn't any therapy that can reverse it or slow it down, Olshansky says. Official medical associations from the Endocrine Society to the American Medical Association warn against using "anti-aging" interventions.
        And while traditional doctors, such as endocrinologists (who specialize in hormones) and geriatricians (who focus on the elderly) are specifically trained to treat age-related conditions such as hormone imbalances, "not all anti-aging doctors have a degree or advanced expertise" in what they practice, Olshansky says.
        In fact, anti-aging isn't a specialty that's recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties, meaning doctors can't officially be board-certified in it. Yet it has its own professional society, the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine (A4M). Founded in 1992, A4M boasts some 24,000 members worldwide and offers a certificate in anti-aging medicine, available to any M.D.
        Once a doctor sets up an anti-aging practice, she stands to make major profits. Many age-fighting treatments aren't covered by insurance, which means the M.D.s prescribing them are paid out-of-pocket, Olshansky says -- and that can add up to thousands per patient. At a time when physicians are getting lower and lower reimbursements under managed care, it's little wonder that doctors of all stripes, from emergency-room medicine to radiology, are flocking to this lucrative new specialty.
        Unproven treatments
        So how do you know if your doctor is making promises he can't keep? Here are the top dangers Health's investigation uncovered:
        Risky hormone therapies. The biggest weapon in the anti-aging doctor's arsenal is the willy-nilly prescribing of hormones. "The concept is that if you take a 60-year-old woman and duplicate the hormone environment from when she was 20, she'll feel like she's 20," says Nanette Santoro, M.D., director of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology & Infertility at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "It is essentially the idea of drinking the blood of young children."
        It's also hazardous, because most age-erasing doctors aren't trained in using these powerful substances. "In this entire field, I've only encountered one board-certified endocrinologist," says Thomas Perls, M.D., an associate professor of medicine and geriatrics at Boston University School of Medicine. "It's outrageous that people think they can prescribe these toxic hormone soups."
        The main ingredient in that soup is HGH, which naturally declines in our bodies as we age. Anti-aging doctors claim that by boosting HGH levels with injections that can cost $12,000 or more per year, you can reduce body fat, build muscle, improve sexual function, and up your energy.
        But "there is no scientific proof of this," Perls says. "And studies show that increasing HGH levels with drugs predisposes people to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer" -- suggesting that the hormone may have been a contributing factor in Hanneke Hops's death.
        In fact, HGH is only FDA-approved for use in a handful of conditions in adults (including adult growth hormone deficiency, which is rare), and it is illegal to distribute a product containing HGH for anti-aging purposes.
        Another hot hormone is bioidentical estrogen. For decades, women have relied on synthetic estrogen to relieve menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness. But when the Women's Health Initiative study on estrogen and progestin therapy was halted in 2002 -- due to a possible hormone-related increase in the risk of heart disease, stroke, blood clots, and breast cancer -- some doctors touted bioidentical versions, made from soy and yams, as safer (though there's no proof they're less likely to raise your disease risk).
        Bioidentical creams and pills made by pharmaceutical companies are available via prescription and regulated by the FDA. Still, many anti-aging docs attempt to create their own bioidentical hormone cocktails tailored to their patients' special needs.