Antiaging Medicine: Promise or Peril?

Article excerpt

To age-or antiage? That may be the question for millions of midlife boomers beginning to experience age-related debilities, ranging from serious illnesses to decreased libidos. The promise-or the peril-of antiaging medicine sparked debate at the recent Joint Conference of the National Council on the Aging and the American Society on Aging in Chicago, but discussants reached only one conclusion: nostrums, pills and potions touting eternal youthfulness and treating aging as a curable disease are bad medicine.

Although advertisements for antiaging remedies raise the hackles of serious researchers, some physicians insist that unwanted effects of aging have solutions-such as hormones and cosmetic surgery-that can legitimately improve the quality of life for an aging population.

ANTI-ANTIAGING

Scientists on the anti-antiaging medicine side of the debate argue that people live longer now not because science has altered the way we age but because people have changed the way they live. This is the view of S. Jay Olshansky, a professor at the School of Public Health, University of Illinois at Chicago, and researcher at the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago. Olshansky insists, "There is no truth to the fountain of youth through medicine." In fact, "No Truth to the Fountain of Youth" was the title of an unusual statement published last year in Scientific American (June 2002)-a statement that was coauthored by Olshansky and signed by 51 authorities in science and medicine. It raised critical concerns about false claims that anyone can reverse human aging. Olshansky aims to debunk antiaging gurus, such as Ronald Klatz, founder and president of the American Academy of AntiAging Medicine, based in Chicago, who claim that human lifespans can be extended to 120, 130, 140 years or more.

"It is highly improbable that life expectancy is ever going to go past 85, unless we find some way to modify the biological rate of aging, which is currently not possible," Olshansky asserted. "Quite frankly, even if we eliminated all of the major causes of death today-the three main killers of heart disease, cancer and stroke-life expectancy probably would not rise above 95. And even if we eliminated everything but accidental mortality, we wouldn't reach a life expectancy of 100."

Olshansky holds that once humans fulfill their purpose of procreation, extended life becomes unnecessary from nature's viewpoint. Civilization has pushed the lifespan to its limits, he believes, and the only way lives will be extended much further is by altering the basic biological rate of aging itself. "What we are now doing is living well beyond our reproductive periods and therefore it should be no surprise that we see things go wrong with our bodies as we age," he says.

UNETHICAL EXPERIMENTS

Although Olshansky agrees with practitioners of antiaging medicine that it is worthwhile to advocate lifestyle changes, such as improved diet and exercise, he takes issue with hormones and nutritional supplements touted as extending the duration and quality of life or even reversing aging. …