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Can Doctors Really Turn Back Time?

A new cadre of physicians sees aging as a treatable condition, but others say there's more hype than science behind their methods.

May 08, 2000|BENEDICT CAREY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Never mind growing old with dignity. You can do better, say doctors who now treat aging as a disease. You can grow old with daring, with drive, with a good forehand and a lush libido. Enter a marathon instead of a nursing home. Be good in bed rather than confined to one. At the very least, say these doctors, give yourself the chance to travel, learn, truly "live," well into your 70s, your 80s, even beyond.

"Aging is a terminal disease, and there's no cure for it," says Ronald Klatz, an osteopath who founded the Chicago-based American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine. "But we are showing that it is a treatable disease. You don't have to be crippled and decrepit after age 65. You can be as strong and mentally alert as someone 20 years younger. That's a very positive and optimistic view of aging."

Since its founding in 1993, the A4M, as it is known, has grown from 12 members to more than 8,500 in 55 countries, including cardiologists, anesthesiologists, osteopaths, plastic surgeons, family doctors, chiropractors, even a clairvoyant. What are their secrets for reversing age?

They are almost too many to name. Vitamins, enzymes, B-12 shots, omega-3 oils, herbs, nutraceuticals, bioflavonoids: whole shelves of supplements. Then there are special diets and exercise programs, stress-reduction techniques, and simply listening to patients.

But the meat in any anti-aging sandwich is a controversial treatment called hormone replacement therapy, or HRT. Its logic is easy to understand.

After age 25 or so, our glands secrete less and less of several valuable hormones. These include human growth hormone, or HGH, which helps cells grow, divide and repair themselves; melatonin, which synchronizes sleep and waking cycles; testosterone, which helps keep bones and muscles strong; and DHEA, whose levels soar when the body is most healthy.

The levels of these hormones don't crash, as estrogen levels do during menopause, signaling the end of a woman's reproductive life. Rather, they decline gradually, shadowing the physical decline of age closely enough to prompt some doctors to propose that, in effect, hormone loss is aging. Young people whose bodies make lower-than-normal amounts of HGH, for example, look as weak and listless as elderly people; the same goes for young men who aren't producing normal levels of testosterone. From here it is a very short step to replacement therapy. With the development of mass-produced versions of these body chemicals, anti-aging practitioners have made them available to consumers--HGH (injections), testosterone (injections, patches and, soon, a gel), melatonin and DHEA (tablets).

The Siren Song of Renewed Youth

"If you're going to do it [hormone replacement]," says Fouad Ghaly, an anesthesiologist who has an anti-aging practice in Torrance, "you really should take all the hormones together. The hormone replacement is most effective when you replace everything. It should be a symphony."

And clients are waltzing to the music, from senior citizens down to the tail end of the baby boom.

"This is the fountain of youth, I'm telling you," says Michael Watson, 66, who's been taking dozens of supplements, along with the hormone DHEA. "I started on this about five years ago, and I feel great. I play racquetball three times a week, and since I've been on this anti-aging program I've been able to play very well, very aggressively, even beat guys 10 or 20 years younger."

Jane Schnall, a 55-year-old Rancho Santa Fe woman who has struggled with osteoporosis, now takes 85 pills a day, plus a shot of HGH.

"I feel stronger, my workouts are much better, my osteoporosis gone, people say I look better, and I think my doctor is a genius," she says.

And no wonder. The effects of testosterone (in men) and of HGH (in men and women) are, by most accounts, immediately noticeable: weight loss, increased muscle mass, stronger bones, and an almost immediate bounce in mood.

Yet the testimonials and optimism mask several hard realities. First, HRT is very expensive. The initial checkup and hormone blood tests cost anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000, depending on the doctor and the number of tests performed. Regular injections of HGH run from $300 to $1,000 a month, based on the dosage. Throw in an additional $100 or $200 a month for other supplements, and you're up to $12,000 to $15,000 for the year--and counting. To realize and sustain the benefits of HRT, you have to keep anteing up.

"Once you're committed, you're committed, and it is costly," says Alan Brauer, who runs a thriving practice in Palo Alto. Brauer says most of his patients are white-collar professionals from the Silicon Valley with high disposable incomes. "One of the new groups I'm seeing in here are males in their mid-30s who've sold their successful dot-com ventures, who have plenty of time and money, and no family, no kids. They're looking around for another project to devote themselves to, and what better project than themselves?"

Going Mano a Mano With Father Time

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