It is written that Alexander the Great roamed the world searching in vain for it. The 13th century English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon thought he could possess it by ingesting small amounts of gold, pearl and coral. Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon’s search for it in 1513 lead him to discover present-day Florida.
None of them found it.
If the current U.S. market is an indication, the search for the fountain of youth today is as fervent as ever. FIND/SVP, a market research company, estimates that the anti-aging market, which includes cosmetic treatments, surgery, supplements and hormonal therapies, will balloon into a $64 billion industry by 2007.
But many scientists who study aging, including some whose research may lead to medicine or therapies that could potentially extend human life expectancy, are troubled by what they say is an industry selling ineffective and sometimes dangerous products to consumers.
“We’re in a very ageless society and everyone wants to stay young or retard aging as much as possible if we can’t reverse it,” said Debra Sheets, coordinator for the Interdisciplinary Gerontology Program at CSUN. “So people are taking things, such as human growth hormones, estrogen, bio-identical hormones, hoping to stave off aging,” she said.
CSUN psychology graduate student Leila Hassan said her mother has used anti-aging creams and pills, but that she herself does not buy into the hype. Instead, she maintains a balanced diet and exercises regularly.
Many gerontologists do not object to people’s desire to stave off aging. Instead, they object to the gullibility of so many consumers who buy into many of today’s popular anti-aging interventions.
“There are charlatans, fakers and medical quacks who are making a fortune at this moment selling their nostrums and treatments to ignorant people, promising that these interventions will extend their longevity,” said Dr. Leonard Hayflick, professor of anatomy at University of California, San Francisco. “But that’s all garbage.”
Hayflick was one of 51 leading scientists in the field of aging research who signed a 2002 article published in Scientific American titled “No Truth to the Fountain of Youth.” The article concluded that there “are no lifestyle changes, surgical procedures, vitamins, antioxidants, hormones, or techniques of genetic engineering available today that have been demonstrated to influence the processes of aging.”
The National Institute of Aging, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging and the U.S. General Accounting Office has disseminated similar cautions to the public.
Nevertheless, the anti-aging market has continued to flourish since 2002. One of the major players that have been blamed for the public dissemination of disinformation on anti-aging products is the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine (A4M), created in 1993 as a nonprofit entity to promote “longevity medicine,” though its net assets were $5.3 million in 2000, up from $650,000 in 1997, documents on Guidestar.org show.
A4M rejected the Scientific America article and in their written response charged that “the death cult of gerontology desperately labors to sustain an arcane, outmoded stance that aging is natural and inevitable,” and castigated the gerontological establishment as a “power elite who depend on an uninterrupted status quo in the concept of aging in order to maintain its unilateral control over the funding of today’s research in aging.”
The nonprofit organization denies that it promotes any specific anti-aging products, though a brief glance at its Web site worldhealth.net reveals advertisements for anti-aging products, books, conferences and articles promoting studies that bolster the claims of specific anti-aging interventions. For example, A4M has posted a recent study that indicated that hormonal replacement therapy use decreases the chance of heart disease, yet does not mention a January 2007 Stanford University study concluding that the human growth hormone was not only ineffective, but heightened the risk of developing joint swelling and pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, “diabetes and (other) predicaments.”
A4M did not respond to several interview requests for this article.
Robert Binstock, professor of aging, health and society at Case Western Reserve University, says groups like the A4M make up the “anti-aging people” who are the predominant commercial and clinical movements offering or promoting anti-aging interventions on the market today, and are often at odds with biogerontologists who are skeptical of the products they promote.
“The anti-aging people are thriving,” Binstock said. “They hold these big conferences. I went to one of them in Las Vegas last December and what amazed me was that there were about 6,000 people there.”
But the sheer magnitude of the anti-aging market can be most felt on the Internet. Web sites such as Longevity: Essential Life Services, which sells formulas they advertise as part of an “Anti-Aging Daily Premium Pak,” abound. Other Web sites sell the “Longevity Signal Formula,” even though in 2000 the Federal Trade Commission rebuffed several claims by sellers that it slowed “the signs of aging.”
Many gerontologists, including Richard A. Miller, professor of pathology at the University of Michigan Geriatrics Center, lament that misleading or fraudulent marketing of anti-aging products undermines the credibility of serious scientific research on aging.
“It makes people think of aging researchers as charlatans and hucksters,” he said. “When people make exaggerated claims, they also bring the field into a sort of dingy area where showmanship takes precedence over hard, careful thought.
But Miller is optimistic about the possibilities of anti-aging research. Having spearheaded research on calorie restriction, which has shown to “decelerate aging” in mice and rhesus monkeys, he said that once the causes of this decelerated aging under calorie restriction are found, drugs might be produced that will act on the human body in a similar manner and potentially increase the mean human life-expectancy by about 40 percent.
One of the most vocal critics of the anti-aging market, who in 2002 presented the “Silver Fleece Award” in an effort to discredit the A4M, said he is as optimistic as anyone about the possibilities of producing anti-aging medicine in the future.
“In the last 10 years, we’ve seen some remarkable advancement in the genetic study of lower organisms designed to extend duration of life,” said Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, a biogerontologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “We’ve seen certain genes in older people that have encouraged us to believe in either a deceleration in the rate of aging or a significant reduction in the risk of disease, which already exists in the population.”
But until these breakthroughs in science are made, Olshansky and many others say there is presently no evidenced intervention to increase life expectancy and the quality of life. Until there is, people have to rely on the tried-and-true lifestyle changes that increase human life expectancy.
“You don’t drink excessively, don’t smoke, take drugs, exercise, keep weight down, reduce caloric intake, and after that you have to rely on your genetics,” he said.