Anti-Aging: Hype v. Reality
Very real remedies that will stop or reverse the aging process may ultimately be discovered, but for now, save your money to spend on a health club membership.
That's the consensus among leading scientists researching the subject of aging. They say that there is no "cure" for aging-yet. However, there is still plenty you can do to stay as healthy and active as possible well into your later years.
Untested treatments may be ineffective or even dangerous
Dr. Jay Olshansky is a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He says a growing anti-aging industry claims the ability to stop, slow, or even reverse aging, mostly through supplements and hormone treatments.
Not only are these claims unproven, but some of the remedies may actually be harmful. Dietary supplements are not regulated by the FDA. Some physicians may prescribe drugs off-label-for uses other than those already approved. In either case, the treatments may find their way onto the market before a particular use has been fully evaluated in long-term clinical trials.
Such trials serve a couple of purposes. First, they test the ability of the treatments to do what they claim, saving consumers from wasting money on products that don't work.
Scientists also use clinical trials to monitor any side effects, some of which may take years of accumulated treatment to appear. In the case of anti-aging treatments, these side effects may include increased risk for diseases such as heart disease, Alzheimer's, and cancer.
Olshansky concedes that some existing treatments, once evaluated properly, may be proven effective. The current risks outweigh any possible benefits, however. "Right now it is premature," he says.
The evidence against the use of some anti-aging treatments is already piling up.
"One of the clear ones is hormone replacement therapy, on which there have been a lot of studies within the last year pointing out that its use increases risks for Alzheimer's disease as well as heart disease, cancer, stroke, and a whole bunch of other things," says Dr. Robert Binstock, professor of Aging, Health and Society at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
So what does work?
The good news is that you can still have some control over how well you age. And a good physician can help you with what Olshansky calls effective "age-management practices."
- These practices include:
- traditional preventive medicine, including early screening for a variety of age-related diseases.
- lifestyle counseling that encourages regular activity or exercise and a balanced, nutritious diet.
- active monitoring of patients' health so any issues can be treated early.
Scientists are also on to some very promising areas of research. Understanding how and why we age is a fundamental step before any real interventions can be developed. The study of aging at a cellular level, including genetic manipulation, has lead researchers in directions where they're seeing real results.
Binstock calls these areas "molecular interventions," and points to the effects they've already had in research animals.
"People are working on pills to mimic the effects of dietary caloric restriction, which has been shown to be definitely effective in slowing aging in animal models," he says. "And if they succeed in that, that's one of the interventions that would be enormous in its implications. The results in rats and mice, for example, are to increase both average and maximum life expectancy by 40 percent, which is really extraordinary."
The ultimate goal of molecular research would be a comprehensive understanding of the aging process, not necessarily to duplicate the studies among the general public, Olshansky says. While limiting calories works in laboratory rats, it would not be practical for people. But armed with the understanding these studies provide, pharmaceutical companies could develop drugs that would mimic the results.
The Bottom Line
Binstock recommends first and foremost that consumers avoid growth hormones and hormone therapies because of their potential harm. He also recommends that consumers ask their family physicians about the safety and proven effectiveness of any products they are considering taking
"If they are seeing people who call themselves anti-aging practitioners, it would be very good to get a second opinion," he says. "There might be some who are only recommending things that are safe and effective, but it's hard to weed them out."
Olshansky goes a step farther. "Avoid anything and anyone who claims they can make you stop aging," he says. "There is no magic bullet. They're all shooting blanks at the moment."
To hear more about the hype and reality of anti-aging medicine, click here to visit a webcast debate between Dr. Binstock and Dr. Olshansky entitled "The War on Anti-Aging Medicine."