Watch Out for Unproven Anti-Aging Treatments

At best, some therapies can drain your wallet. At worst, some can harm your health.

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While most mainstream wrinkle creams are safe, that doesn't necessarily mean they're effective. A review of over-the-counter topical creams published in Aesthetic Surgery Journal concluded there was little evidence that most anti-aging creams worked and that the evidence for products containing botanicals—such as those based on tea, fruit, and cocoa extracts—was particularly slim. A Consumer Reports investigation reached a similar conclusion in 2011 after testing seven popular anti-wrinkle lotions on 79 people, ages 40 to 60. After six weeks, the lotions seemed to have a minimal effect on just a third of the people using them.

[See: Wrinkle Creams: Worth It or Not?]

But of all the anti-aging "treatments" on the market, nothing upsets some experts like the tide of expensive hormone injections that keep most anti-aging clinics afloat. Prices vary, but there are many reports of people paying upwards of $10,000 a year out-of-pocket for hormone treatments. Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, doesn't hold back when it comes to describing the anti-aging doctors who prescribe hormone treatments like human growth hormone and testosterone for aging.

"What you have are a bunch of charlatans pushing treatments that not only don't work, but are actually harming people," says Barzilai, an endocrinologist and centenarian researcher. "These kinds of treatments don't slow aging, they accelerate it."

Anti-aging doctors who sell hormone replacement argue that because hormones dwindle as people age, it makes sense to replenish our stores to youthful levels with costly injections, sprays, body creams, and gels. The problem, of course, is that it's an assumption that having high hormone levels is a good thing for older bodies. In fact, many doctors are convinced that boosting hormone levels late in life is quite dangerous.

That was certainly the upshot of a massive hormone replacement study, the 10,000-person Women's Health Initiative, which concluded in 2002 that giving postmenopausal women hormones increased the risk of breast cancer, stroke, and heart problems. The increased risk was so high that the National Institutes of Health, which had been running the study, shut it down early.

The news for men drawn by claims that hormones will boost their virility and build muscle late into life is also uninspiring. When a study found that seniors who were using testosterone patches in hopes of improving their mobility had four times the risk of heart attacks, it was halted early. Another study, published in Diabetes Care earlier this year, showed that older men taking human growth hormone had a markedly increased risk of developing diabetes.

"Anybody who claims today that human growth hormone can slow, stop, or reverse aging in people is mistaken," says S. Jay Olshansky, a longevity researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "When people make that sort of claim, my advice to seniors is to demand proof."

Corrected on 6/12/2012: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of ConsumerLab.com.