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A rift in business, science of aging

Some see aging as a disease to be cured. But many doctors cite a lack of research and question the motives behind a growing movement.

January 12, 2004|Valerie Reitman | Times Staff Writer

Dr. L. Stephen Coles, a physician and researcher at UCLA Medical School who for years has studied centenarians, made a radical statement to the audience that had gathered last month for the annual conference of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine.

There is no such thing as anti-aging medicine, he declared to the organization he has belonged to for a decade. The good news, he added, is scientists may achieve real breakthroughs that could lead to longer and healthier life spans -- in 20 to 30 years.

Most of the audience at the Las Vegas meeting groaned, and there was a smattering of boos, said people who attended.

After Cole's remarks, Robert Goldman, a Chicago osteopath and cofounder and chairman of the anti-aging academy known as A4M, got up and disputed everything Coles had just said. If the medical community waits two or three decades for breakthroughs, he said, many in the audience would be dead. He asked everyone who believed in anti-aging medicine to applaud.

Most of the audience clapped heartily.

"Nearly everyone there was a true believer," said Jay Olshansky, an A4M critic who is a professor at the University of Illinois School of Public Health. "It's like a religion."

After all, many of the 1,100 physicians, nutritionists, physical therapists, plastic surgeons, chiropractors and diet specialists who gathered at the A4M conference at the posh Venetian Hotel had paid more than $1,000 to learn about the latest anti-aging therapies, from human growth hormone treatments to nutritional supplements to "cosmeceutical" creams. Many of their patients and clients are clamoring for such treatments to make them look and feel better. And there is money to be made: By some estimates, the market for aging-related products is $42 billion annually.

The Las Vegas incident highlights an intensifying rift in the rapidly evolving business and science of aging. In one camp are doctors and businesspeople who are trying to sell an eager public on the idea that you can turn back the clock or reverse aging.

In the other are those who believe there is little or no scientific foundation for anti-aging products and treatments, and that some may pose a health risk. Many physicians, researchers and scientists, delving into the physiological aspects of human aging, view A4M's activities with disdain, saying that the organization is an inappropriate blend of scientific and commercial interests.

These detractors contend that there is more at risk in the debate than A4M's viability and credibility. They fear that support for scientifically rigorous research into aging -- examining topics such as why muscle mass diminishes and we become frail as we age -- may be tainted by a group that welcomes companies that sell wrinkle creams, hair-growing potions, sexual enhancement pills and hormone treatments such as those on exhibit at last month's conference.

"It's like an open-air circus," said Dan Perry, executive director of the Washington-based nonprofit group, Alliance for Aging Research, who noted a jarring difference between some exhibits and lectures and the scientific and technical presentations on such subjects as Alzheimer's disease that also were part of the conference. "There aren't any boundaries," he said.

Moreover, A4M's publications and website seem to suggest that aging is indeed a disease for which cures exist. The official slogan of the A4M, founded in 1993, is "Aging is not inevitable! The war on aging has begun!" A promotion on the website for Goldman and A4M president Ron Klatz's book, "The New Antiaging Revolution: Stopping the Clock" states: "The science of anti-aging medicine is creating a new paradigm of health care and is taking a new approach to aging and to medicine, showing us a new reality for humankind, an adulthood free from the fear of disease, infirmity and lingering death in old age."

Aging research has been slow to gain credibility, in part, because scientists have had to counter a history of charlatanism and profiteering that goes back centuries, Perry said. In the 13th century, for instance, British mathematician and scientist Roger Bacon -- ahead of his time in believing the world was a sphere rather than flat -- contended that inhaling the breath of young virgins could rejuvenate elderly men.

Serious research into the physiological process of aging wasn't begun until the 1980s, Perry said. Even today, with a growing baby-boom population, aging research gets only a tiny chunk of federal spending on medical research -- about $1 billion of the $27 billion spent annually by the National Institutes of Health.

Meanwhile, boomers can't seem to get enough of products touted as anti-aging remedies, including vitamins, herbs and dietary supplements.

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