(Isaac Brekken / For The Times )
"Oh, you mean the guy with the 70-year-old head and the 20-year-old body-builder body? That picture has got to be Photoshopped."
Dr. Jeffry Life smiles when I tell him about the general reaction I get about the famous picture of him with his shirt off, the shot that turned a mild-mannered doctor in his mid-60s into a poster boy for super-fit aging and controversial hormone replacement
Appearing in medical-clinic ads in airline magazines and newspapers (including this one), the incongruous photo juxtaposes a bald, white-haired, septuagenarian head on top of a rippling, V-shaped torso worthy of an Olympic gymnast or powerlifter. Completing the effect of macho, forever-young vitality, Life's left hand casually dangles by his thumb from a jeans front pocket, in a cool cowboy swagger.
"Yeah, I read on the Internet that people think it's digitally enhanced," says the soft-spoken Life (which really is his name, translated from the German by his immigrant great-grandfather) with a laugh. But the body is real -- built by a relentless, six-day-a-week exercise regimen that includes hard cardio, heavy weights pushed to the max, martial arts, Pilates, a strict low-glycemic carb diet and lots of supplements. It has also, for the last seven years, been hormonally enhanced by a program that includes testosterone and human growth hormone -- a therapy Life views as entirely appropriate, even necessary despite the medical evidence questioning both its effectiveness and safety.
Testosterone replacement can enlarge the prostate and raise levels of prostate-specific androgen, used in cancer-screening tests. Human growth hormone could increase the risk of diabetes and cancer, and the National Insitute on Aging recommends it not be used for anti-aging purposes. (See related story for details.) But both are mainstays of the not-quite-mainstream field known as anti-aging medicine.
Life's enthusiasm is undimmed by such skepticism. "The fact is that every male over 50 or 55 suffers from a slow, insidious fall in testosterone levels," he says. "You don't notice it for a long time until your 'T' levels cross a certain threshold. Then you suddenly find that you lose your enthusiasm, your sex drive and can't maintain muscle mass anymore -- even if you work out. It's even worse if your HGH levels are falling off the table. That's what happened to me."
'Years of sloth'
Like most people, Life didn't give a thought to his testosterone level, his HGH or his fitness as he built his career as a family practice doctor in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. A lapsed Masters swimmer who became inactive in his mid 40s, the father of five became fat and borderline diabetic -- "a typical stressed-out middle-aged doctor who ate, drank and didn't practice what he preached. It was years and years of sloth."
That changed the day Life, then 60, picked up Muscle Media magazine and read about "the Challenge," a 12-week, before-and-after fitness contest. His competitive fires lighted, Life sent in his before photo and hit the gym.
Three months later, he'd dropped 25 pounds, cut his body fat from 28% to 10%, got genuinely ripped and was named one of the contest's 1999 "Body for Life" 10 grand champions.
Entering his 60s energized, Life was good. "I'd gone from fat, aging and tired to lean, strong, energized and highly motivated with an incredible zest for life," he said. "If I could do this in my 60s, I truly believe anybody can."
But by age 64, Life found himself shrinking.
His muscles didn't respond to workouts like they did a few years before. Abdominal fat started piling up. He began feeling mildly depressed. And he wasn't waking with an erection as often as he used to.
It was a condition he would soon know as andropause, the insidious creep of declining testosterone.
It was time for his second epiphany -- and the photo that would change everything.
A turning point
At a nutritional conference in Las Vegas in 2003, Life heard a presentation from Cenegenics, a local clinic making a name for itself in what proponents call "aging management" medicine. Its therapy included exercise, diet and treatment with testosterone and human growth hormone.
Testosterone, produced in the testicles, is key for maintaining bone density, red blood cell levels, muscle bulk, libido, even a sense of well-being. HGH, secreted by the pituitary gland as a childhood growth agent, does similar jobs, including enhancing skin tone and texture. Both have been used as illegal performance enhancers by athletes for decades -- and both decline steadily with age.
Adult HGH levels decline by half from age 20 to 60, and the loss accelerates thereafter. Adult testosterone levels begin a steady fall-off by age 30 or 40 that continues throughout life, although symptoms may not show up for decades, if at all.
Noting that such declines are part of the natural aging process, many doctors are openly skeptical of the wisdom of replacing these hormones.