The following article comes from the U.S. News ebook, How to Live to 100, which is now available for purchase.
The anti-aging industry is booming. Twenty years ago, there was no such thing as an "anti-aging" or "longevity" clinic. Today, many major cities house dozens.
Step inside one, and you'll likely encounter an assortment of remedies ranging from multivitamin cocktails to hormone injections to miracle pills that, if you believe the pitches, will guarantee you youthful entry into the triple digits.
There's just one wrinkle. Although often lucrative for physicians, evidence suggests that many of the treatments anti-aging doctors tout don't actually work—and some may be downright dangerous. "You really have to be careful," says Loren Schechter, chairman of the patient safety committee for the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. "There are a lot of extravagant claims out there that simply don't check out when you look at the science."
Consider vitamins and supplements, for example. Most are harmless and possibly helpful in moderate doses, but a growing body of evidence shows that in excess, they can cause problems. Getting too much vitamin A, for example, has been linked to osteoporosis, vitamin B to nerve damage, and vitamin E to cancer.
Nonetheless, many anti-aging clinics tout vitamins as something akin to a cure-all. Some have even started offering expensive intravenous infusions containing dozens of vitamins and minerals directly into the bloodstream to patients, many of whom believe the mixture can do everything from boost energy levels and fight off the flu to combat cancer and cardiovascular disease.
These infusions, known as vitamin cocktails (or Myers' cocktails after the Baltimore physician who developed them in the 1950s) haven't been proven effective for treating any health problems, although many clinicians offer anecdotal evidence that they work. The only rigorous scientific study evaluating the Myers' cocktail in the National Institutes of Health's Library of Medicine found it was no better at treating fibromyalgia—a condition characterized by chronic pain and fatigue—than a placebo.
And, like most anti-aging treatments, insurance companies won't cover the infusions, meaning patients are left to scrape up the money out-of-pocket, which can be several hundred dollars per session.
Even if you assume that big doses of dietary supplements improve health, there's a chance that what's inside the bottle at the store won't match what the label advertises. In testimony made before the Senate in 2010, Tod Cooperman, president of ConsumerLab.com, an independent company that performs quality control tests on vitamins and supplements, noted that his company had found safety problems in about 25 percent of the 2,000 products it had tested over an 11-year period. Many contained less of the active ingredient than their labels claimed; others were contaminated with toxic heavy metals such as lead and cadmium.
If you do happen to be worried about heavy metals in your blood, the anti-aging industry claims to have a cure for that as well: chelation therapy. It's an increasingly popular remedy that involves multiple injections of ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA), a substance that binds with heavy metals and helps clear them from the bloodstream. It's a proven treatment for lead and mercury poisoning, but anti-aging clinics have begun to offer it as a treatment for cancer and cardiovascular disease. Neither the American Cancer Society nor the American Heart Association considers it valid.
Even anti-aging skin creams can be problematic. A report released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in March 2012 warned that some skin-lightning creams contain high levels of mercury—sometimes 131,000 times the allowable level. Many of the mercury-containing skin products entered the country illegally and were often sold online or in shops in Latino, Asian, African, or Middle Eastern neighborhoods.
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.
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.