(Changes reference in 9th paragraph to a threatened lawsuit.)
Selling the Fountain of Youth: How the Anti-Aging Industry Made a Disease Out of Getting Old—And Made Billions
By Arlene Weintraub
BASIC BOOKS, 256 pp., $25.95
Has the image of Suzanne Somers having sex at age 94 ever crossed your mind? While it's unusual for people just shy of triple digits to wake up every morning thinking about how healthy and strong their bodies feel, and proceed to engage in "wonderful sex with [their] 105 year-old husband[s]," that's what Somers, now 63, sees in her future.
Could that be your future, too? Of course! All you have to do is suspend any disbelief that the actress and former Thighmaster shill isn't an expert on the inner workings of the body. Then banish all doubt about the soundness of the medical advice she's repeating, and put yourself on a daily hormone regimen of over 60 supplements, creams, and injections. If that's a lot to process, don't worry: It's all laid out in Somers' manifesto, Breakthrough, which spent nearly four months on the New York Times advice books best-seller list. The tome doesn't put much stock in the fact that, according to some doctors, such a regimen may make your hair fall out, require an organ to be removed (admit it: that gallbladder was just taking up space), or leave you susceptible to depression and even cancer. But why should it? We're talking about an opportunity to get carded at a bar seven decades past your 21st birthday.
If you're looking for a more reliable guide to the anti-aging revolution, consider Arlene Weintraub's Selling the Fountain of Youth: How the Anti-Aging Industry Made a Disease Out of Getting Old—And Made Billions. The book, which is based on a cover story Weintraub wrote for this magazine in 2006, traces the anti-aging industry from its salad days in the early '90s to its $88 billion-a-year present. Weintraub chronicles pharmacists mixing up their own concoctions in back rooms, battles between drug companies and large corporations, and the reincarnation of Somers as a poster girl for endless youth. Along the way, she shows how one absurd promise—the ability to stave off the aging process—became a multi-billion-dollar marketing ploy that, according to most business measurements, worked like a charm.
The anti-aging phenomenon started off with understandable intentions. Baby boomers were getting older and didn't like what they saw or how they felt. So when a study was printed in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1990 positing that human growth hormone (HGH), previously used to treat growth disorders in children, could be used on healthy adults to "reverse aging," people took note—and many latched on like junkies.
In 1993 a number of doctors, notably osteopaths Ronald Klatz and Robert Goldman, began injecting themselves (forget mice) with HGH. After they observed, among other outcomes, decreases in body fat and increases in energy, the cat was out of the bag. Paying no attention to a medical Establishment that saw HGH as exceedingly dangerous and unresearched, they and countless imitators opened clinics around the country where patients could pay thousands of dollars to learn how to inject themselves with HGH. If hormones were bad for you or caused cancer, the duo argued, all teenagers would be dead—twisting logic in such a way it's unclear whether they were intellectually dishonest, stupid, or thought their clients just didn't care. Regardless, many didn't.
Klatz and Goldman launched a "medical society" called the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine (A4M), whose mission it became to promote HGH and certify doctors in this exciting and lucrative new field. Soon after, they were holding annual conferences in Vegas, charging $4,000 for procedures mainstream science deemed faulty and recommending diets of hormones to replace those gone "missing" during the aging process.
While it may not have been good science, it was good business. A4M was hardly the first association to market the fountain of youth, but by making the unattainable seem accessible, it paved the way for successive companies&mdashand entire industries—to offer their own dose of the same promise. Supermarket aisles now teem with bottles adorned with the words "anti-aging;" second-tier produce like pomegranate and acai have become "superfruits" and the foundation of their own billion-dollar businesses. For men fearing the onset of "male menopause," anti-aging hormones and over-the-counter antidotes like Viagra and Cialis have helped assuage millions of midlife crises. Even botox (one of the movement's own creations) descended the age curve from being a subplot on Sex & The City to one on The Hills. And this is to say nothing of the spate of advice books.
The anti-agers have all the answers for their critics. The pharmaceutical companies that fought to shut them down? They'd be doing the same thing if they could get the patents! Scientists cautioning against the serious dangers of this "medical specialty"? They're being paid off by Big Pharma! When a patient of T.S. Wiley, Suzanne Somers' favorite doctor, complained of extreme bleeding, hair loss, and insomnia as a result of following the doctor's orders, she was told she was "being ungrateful." When local pharmacists latched on, having realized the business could free them from the shackles of dealing with insurance companies and line their pockets big-time, they shot back that those questioning their lack of oversight wanted to take away the consumers' right to choose. No one was too small to be threatened with a slander suit, including Weintraub.
On the other hand, maybe Wall Street and Detroit have something to learn. Botox sales topped $1 billion by the end of last year, and anti-aging "institutes" like Cenegenics and BodyLogicMD continue to expand their client bases by offering what BodyLogicMD's president, Patrick Savage, calls "the perfect example of a service you're not going to give up in a bad economy." With the unemployment rate hovering at nearly 10 percent in the U.S., it would be tremendous consolation if older Americans could reenter the workforce looking younger than ever. The laws of nature, however, still haven't been repealed.
PONCE DE LEONS OF THE 21ST CENTURY
The anti-aging business has grown into an $88 billion annual industry with a multitude of beneficiaries
BodyLogicMD: The network for "bioidentical hormone replacement doctors" was founded in 2003 by twins Paul and Patrick Savage after Paul lost nearly 90 pounds via hormone injections. It now oversees more than 40 practices.
Resveratrol: Hollywood (Fla.)-based FWM Laboratories began offering free trials of the drug but insidiously signed people up to receive automatic shipments for around $80 a month and made it virtually impossible to cancel.
Suzanne Somers: The former sitcom actress and home fitness guru capitalized on the anti-aging revolution with her books The Sexy Years, Ageless: The Naked Truth About Bioidentical Hormones, and Breakthrough.
MonaVie: Founded in 2005, the company sells a dark purple drink made with the acai berry for more than $40 that, it says, promotes overall health and longevity. In 2009 founder Dallin Larsen claimed $1 billion in sales.