Anti-aging remedies: Facts vs. Science20 years, 11 months ago
Posted on Jan 05, 2003, 8 p.m.
By Bill Freeman
Efforts to halt aging go back thousands of years - from Ponce de Leon
Efforts to halt aging go back thousands of years - from Ponce de Leon’s search for the Fountain of Youth to consuming crushed-up animal testicles for renewed vigor. Today, "anti-aging" medicine is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States. With "longevity" clinics popping up around the country and Internet advertisements for miracle cures bombarding your inbox, how can you separate the too-good-to-be-true claims from the scientific facts?
A variety of hormones commonly decline with age, among them: growth hormone, testosterone, estrogen and DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone). Injections, prescription pills and over-the-counter dietary supplements of hormones have been touted in popular books as reversing or halting the aging process.
Injections of human growth hormone (HGH) - which can cost as much as $15,000 a year - are said to extend lifespan; boost energy, immunity and muscle mass; eliminate cellulite and increase memory. Some dietary supplements known as HGH-releasers, which purportedly stimulate the body’s own production of the hormone, are marketed as a cheaper alternative to the shots.
DHEA, which breaks down in the body into estrogen and testosterone, can be purchased in "anti-aging" dietary supplements that claim to improve libido, strength, energy, muscles and immunity and decrease fat.
The hormone melatonin is often marketed as a sleep-aid and anti-aging remedy. It’s often contained in anti-aging cocktail supplements.
Testosterone injections, patches and topical gels are promoted as restoring erectile function, virility, strength and vigor in aging men.
Estrogen - the grandmommy of hormone therapy - has been prescribed to post-menopausal women for decades to stabilize mood, curb hot flashes, ward off osteoporosis and perhaps even reduce risk of heart disease.
Growth hormone: HGH shots are helpful for people with deficiencies in their ability to produce the hormone--such as children who aren’t growing or people who must have their pituitary gland removed due to a tumor. But there’s no good evidence that HGH supplementation offers any life-extension benefits. In fact, research even suggests that people with high HGH levels are more likely to die at younger ages than those with lower levels of the hormone, and studies of animals with genetic disorders that suppress growth hormone production suggest that reduced levels of the hormone may actually prolong lifespan. Studies in older men have shown certain short-term benefits such as improvements in muscle mass, bone density and skin elasticity, but the long-term effects of the hormone are not known. Side effects seen with HGH include excess bone growth, carpal tunnel syndrome, fluid retention, glucose intolerance, diabetes and heart enlargement.
DHEA: There is no evidence to support the use of DHEA as an anti-aging hormone. Some experts say there is so little active hormone in over-the-counter formulations that there is likely to be little danger as well as no effect. But some are concerned that DHEA supplements can cause liver damage. Also, some people’s bodies make large amounts of estrogen or testosterone from DHEA, which is alarming because testosterone may increase risk of prostate cancer and estrogen may increase breast cancer risk. Also, in women, high testosterone levels can cause acne and overgrowth of facial hair.
Melatonin: Melatonin has not been shown to slow or reverse aging. Animal studies suggest melatonin supplements may increase risk of tumor development and cause blood vessels to constrict, which could be dangerous for people with heart problems.
Testosterone: As men age, their testes often produce somewhat less testosterone than they did during youth, but most older men stay within normal limits. In fact, in most cases erectile difficulties are caused by circulation problems not low testosterone levels. A small number of men have true deficiencies and may be helped by prescription testosterone injections, patches or gels. But mainstream scientists do not support the use of testosterone supplementation for non-deficient men. Preliminary studies have been inconclusive as to the benefits but have suggested they might trigger excessive blood clotting and increase stroke risk. Some doctors are also concerned extra testosterone may increase risk of prostate cancer.
Estrogen: Unlike these other hormones, long-term reliable studies have been conducted on the risks and benefits of estrogen replacement therapy. But the jury is still out. The latest research has raised doubts about its purported benefits. Experts say the back-and-forth research on estrogen demonstrates how tricky it is to study the long-term effects of hormones. Doctors say women should discuss the risks and benefits along with their individual risk factors in detail with their physician before a decision is reached about prescription estrogen supplementation.
Antioxidants make up a popular class of dietary supplements touted as slowing down aging by fighting harmful molecules known as free radicals. These substances &emdash; including vitamin C, vitamin E, beta carotene, co-enzyme Q10 and SOD (superoxide dismutase) &emdash; can be found naturally in the body or in fruits and vegetables.
One theory holds that we age because of cumulative damage to our cells caused by oxygen-free radicals. Free radicals - molecules with unpaired electrons - are a natural byproduct of metabolism but also come from environment sources such as smoking, radiation and sunlight. The body’s own antioxidant defense system prevents most free-radical damage but not all, so as people grow older the damage may build up. According to this theory, this build-up eventually causes cells, tissues and organs to break down.
Proponents claim that when taken in large quantities, antioxidants will sop up the free radicals and slow down or stop the cellular damage.
There is some evidence to support the free-radical theory of aging, experts say, but there is no good research to show that consuming antioxidants will slow down the process. Some studies suggest that dietary supplementation with vitamins E and C may reduce the risk of some age-related conditions such as cancer, macular degeneration and heart disease, but the effects on longevity have not been established.
In one study, very high doses of antioxidants have increased the lifespan of worms, but overall the results have been equivocal.
Some experts think that in the future potent designer antioxidants could potentially ward off some of the signs of aging but do not think this is possible with any currently available pills.
Most mainstream scientists do not think taking antioxidant supplements is harmful, except for the risk of overdosing on very high amounts of vitamins. The best way to get these vitamins, they agree, is by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables (at least five a day).
Among the various types of products touted as halting the aging process, "miracle" waters, magnets and light-emitting devices are a common theme.
Claims: Since the search for the Fountain of Youth, some special waters have been touted as having anti-aging properties. Today, high-tech sounding "clustered waters" or "magnetized waters" and so-called "miracle" waters from exotic locations where people are said to live long, blessed lives promise everything from relief from pain to a long life in a state of perpetual youth.
Science: While all scientists agree that water is indeed a fluid vital for life, there is no evidence that water from places where people tend to live longer lives or that "magnetized" or otherwise manipulated water offer any added anti-aging benefits over your garden variety H2O.
Claims: Magnets in all shapes in sizes, placed in everything from mattress pads to toe rings to knee pads to face masks, promise a myriad of benefits including increasing lifespan. Some promoters claim magnets activate life-promoting enzymes and encourage cell division, which slows down the aging process.
Science: There is no science that shows magnets offer any measurable benefits on lifespan.
Claims: A variety of devices claim to beam energy, protons, magical photons, etc., into the body and provide some sort of life-force fuel that offers many health benefits including "reducing biological age" and "increasing lifespan."
Science: There’s no evidence that such devices are anything more than battery-operated flashlights.