Junkfood Science: Adding years to your life

April 16, 2007

Adding years to your life

Several stories in the news today will enable us to give our synapses a workout. Another doctor on television has written his own anti-aging book.

It’s been hard to miss the promotional articles by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s medical correspondent, that have promised to reveal “The secret of living to 100.” Today’s article portrayed Dr. Thomas Perl, “a leading expert on aging.” He sells an online life expectancy calculator which claims that by revealing to it our lifestyles, nutrition and family history, it will estimate how long we’ll live and tell us how to add years to our life. As Dr. Gupta says: “I took solace in knowing that if I improve my habits now, I can certainly add years to my life expectancy. So can you.”

Alongside this feature on the CNN Health page is a Special Report that’s really a promotion for Dr. Gupta’s new book, Chasing Life — New Discoveries in the Search for Immortality to Help You Age Less Today. In it, he talks about his “modern-day quest for immortality “ and how he “became fascinated, if not obsessed ...to see firsthand what they called not only the slowing of aging, but the actual reversing of it.” He says it would be ideal if we could live most of our lives with the body of a young teenager. In Chapter One of his book, he writes: “Consider this: if we were able to maintain our body as it is when we’re 11 — when our healing capacity is at its maximum — we could live for an estimated 1,200 years.”

A CNN Special Investigations Unit program, Chasing Life, airing on CNN also features Dr. Gupta talking about how to live the longest, healthiest life possible. He says: “The leading killers — heart disease, cancer and stroke — are often preventable with healthy lifestyle choices.”

So what are these death-defying feats that doctors Perl and Gupta promote? The New York Post summarized what these doctors say "can add 30 years to our life" (results may vary) in a recent article:

Walk +3 years
Eat fish +3 years
Win an Academy Award +4 years
Don’t eat fast food +4 years (The fat, the cholesterol, the pounds - just bad.)
Take 81 mg of aspirin a day +1 year
Cut back on the caffeine +6 months
Lift weights +3 years
Get married +3 years
Don’t Smoke +5 years
Floss every day +1 year
Eat almonds +2 years

By using “immortality” in the subtitle of his book, Dr. Gupta envisions life spans to 150 years, according to an interview in the Sun Sentinel. It reported:

You can live long and die fast, or what is called the compression of morbidity. “People aren't going to live forever. I know that," Gupta says. “I'm not naive, but I think you can compress morbidity by doing some simple things." One of those things is... to always be a little hungry....

Gupta says he would like to start a movement to test everyone for heart disease, stroke and cancer. That approach would be expensive, he acknowledges, but higher costs for treatment later could be avoided. Does it sound pie in the sky? To become a culture of prevention, Gupta says, will require the will of the federal government, insurance companies and the public...

“All that gee-whiz scientific stuff is going to happen," Gupta says. “Hang on for a couple of decades, and I think you're going to get to practical immortality."

His program is similar to other anti-aging diet and lifestyle prescriptions, such as Real Age, which we examined last month. That post reviewed life expectancy calculators and the nutrition, eating less, eating certain foods, taking supplements, and other beliefs for lifestyle changes to increase lifespans. Anti-aging products and “healthy” eating and lifestyle programs that claim to slow, stop or reverse aging have become all the rage, but in most cases have little or no scientific basis. Growing younger is also currently a biological impossible phenomenon. The scientific position on the evidence of human aging, funded by the National Institute on Aging and published in Scientific American Magazine and the Journal of Gerontology: Biological Sciences, emphatically concluded:

Our language on this matter must be unambiguous: there are no lifestyle changes, surgical procedures, vitamins, antioxidants, hormones or techniques of genetic engineering available today that have been demonstrated to influence the processes of aging.

Advocates of what has become known as antiaging medicine claim that it is now possible to slow, stop or reverse aging through existing medical and scientific interventions. Claims of this kind have been made for thousands of years, and they are as false today as they were in the past. ...[L]ifestyle changes based on these precautions do not affect the processes of aging. The more dramatic claims made by those who advocate antiaging medicine in the form of specific drugs, vitamin cocktails or esoteric hormone mixtures are not supported by scientific evidence, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that these claims are intentionally false, misleading or exaggerated for commercial reasons....

At present there is no such thing as an antiaging intervention.

While Dr. Gupta’s book profiles numerous long-lived people around the world and shares their beliefs as to what’s worked for them, the scientists added: “Longevity records are entertaining, but they have little relevance to our own lives because genetic, environmental and lifestyle diversity guarantees that an overwhelming majority of the population will die long before attaining the age of the longest-lived individual.”

Coincidentally, another story in the news today was about those “commercial reasons” mentioned by the scientists. The New York Times reported that anti-aging and “wellness” is a $50 billion a year industry “catering to American’s obsession with looking and feeling younger.” Anti-aging is increasingly finding its way into mainstream medicine. The Times recounted how doctors recently packed into a Las Vegas convention organized by the American Academy of Anti-aging Medicine, where they found booths advertising vitamins, hormones and pharmaceutical drugs, oxygenating and detoxifying paraphernalia, and workshops on “wellness” topics. Several things are fueling the anti-aging movement, according to the Times:

...graying baby boomers, growing enthusiasm for physical fitness, interest in alternative medical treatments, and, some analysts say, many doctors’ efforts to compensate for income lost to managed care. The market for drugs to control and treat diseases of aging and for appearance-related products and services is expected to reach $71 billion a year by 2009, according to BCC Research, a market research company in Wellesley, Mass.

The Times focused its attention on the controversies surrounding human growth hormone, which bilks up to 30,000 Americans out of $1,000 a month for injections, despite the fact that research has underscored its risks. It is also illegal to prescribe except for treating childhood growth disorders, AIDS and a rare adult hormone deficiency, so its promoters claim aging is a disease that causes the pituitary gland to produce less growth hormone and that their injections improve “health, energy level and sense of well-being.” At that wellness conference, attendees learned how to diagnose mild hormone deficiencies so that they could prescribe human growth hormone, but the Times reported that federal authorities have indicted twenty people in three states for internet trafficking so far.

Sadly, many consumers don’t realize that anti-aging medicine is not recognized by mainstream medicine as a legitimate specialty, according to Dr. Robert N. Butler, M.D., a gerontologist and founder of the International Longevity Center. It is easily confused with gerontology, which is a medical specialty and treats aging as a natural phenomenon and risk factor for diseases.

“Doctors who claim to have the ability to measure ‘biomarkers of aging’ and favorably affect them are not scientifically-based,” he said in an article on anti-aging programs.

These anti-aging programs, he said, are not only expensive but include “poorly validated interventions, such as improving antioxidant status and replacing growth hormone.” He explains, for example, that while levels of growth hormone declines with age, it has not been proven to be beneficial to try and maintain young person’s levels and that trials are clearly showing:

negative side effects in the form of increased risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease and behavior changes....[and] that lower growth-hormone levels are an indicator of health. Research findings indicate that mice that overproduce growth hormones live only a short time, suggesting that growth-hormone deficiency itself does not cause accelerated aging, but that the opposite may be true. The risk/benefit ratios for testosterone replacement and growth hormone treatment have not been established in older persons, and trials of DHEA have failed to show significant clinical benefits in normal aging....It therefore pays to be cautious until adequate clinical trials have been completed and analyzed.

As we’re learning, we need our critical thinking skills with anything we see on television or written in a book.

Just as Sergeant Phil Esterhaus would say: “Hey, let’s be careful out there.”


© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

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