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Anti-Aging Claims:
The Fountain of Youth is Still Only a Legend

The Fountain of Youth by Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Fountain of Youth, 1546 painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Spanish explorer Ponce de León wasn’t really looking for the Fountain of Youth when he trekked through Florida. That’s only a legend that wasn’t attached to his name until after his death. The idea of anti-aging remedies dates back to at least 3500 BCE, and the hope is alive and well today. Who wouldn’t like to turn back the clock and regain their lost youth? Who wouldn’t want to ward off death?

Longevity clinics have proliferated in recent years. They offer everything from “age optimization services” to “aesthetic facial rejuvenation,” from “youth maintenance” to “hormone optimization,” from supplements to stem cells. The claims they make are not grounded in science; they are misleading and sometimes even illegal. Jerry Mixon, M.D., of the Longevity Medical Clinic in Washington State, was disciplined for improperly diagnosing and treating four patients for growth hormone deficiency after advertising “comprehensive hormone supplementation as an anti-aging remedy.” Many diverse treatments are being promoted as “anti-aging” remedies. What does the scientific evidence say about them?

Antioxidants. Eating foods high in antioxidants may help reduce the risk of cancer and other disorders; but there is no good evidence that taking anti-oxidant supplements is helpful, and in some cases it causes harm. There is no evidence that people taking those supplements will live longer or age more slowly.

No currently marketed intervention—none—has yet been proved to slow, stop or reverse human aging, and some can be downright dangerous.

Hormone treatments include estrogen, testosterone, DHEA, human growth hormone, and diet supplements that claim to increase the body’s production of these hormones. These hormones have legitimate uses for treating diagnosed medical conditions, but they all carry risks and side effects and they do not slow the rate of aging. Estrogens were widely promoted to “keep women young” until studies showed they did more harm than good. Testosterone is being hyped as a cure-all for aging men, but it is useful only for men with diagnosed hormone deficiency.

Supplement mixtures. There are antiaging supplement mixtures galore. A typical example is Seanol Longevity Plus, which contains “nature’s most powerful antiaging supplement,” brown seaweed extract, along with resveratrol, iodine, and vitamin D. There have been no clinical studies of the product, and there is no evidence that the ingredients affect aging either singly or in combination.

Resveratrol is found in red wine. It activates sirtuins, proteins that assist in DNA repair. The French drink wine and have less heart disease, and studies in mice led to the belief that resveratrol supplements would retard aging and prolong life in humans. There is insufficient evidence to establish resveratrol’s safety or effectiveness in humans, and mimicking the doses of the mouse studies would require taking around 80 of the typical supplement pills a day.

Calorie restriction. Severe calorie restriction has been successful in retarding aging and increasing maximum life span in a variety of organisms including rodents, fish, flies, worms, and yeast. One study of Rhesus monkeys appeared promising but the results have been questioned as possibly due to confounders such as weight and quality of diet. The implications for humans are unclear. It requires a degree of deprivation that few people would be willing to accept, and it would make adequate nutrition problematic; but understanding the mechanism involved might possibly lead to a useful intervention for humans.

Telomeres are repeated nucleotide segments at the end of DNA molecules. Some of these are lost every time a DNA molecule replicates, and if they were all lost, accurate copying of essential DNA information would be impossible and the cell would die. Shortened telomeres are associated with aging, and an enzyme called telomerase retards the shortening process, so it was only natural to guess that telomerase would retard aging. But it has not been established that shortened telomeres cause aging. In at least one species of seabird, telomeres become longer with age. And telomerase may promote cancer; reducing telomerase levels is being investigated as a cancer treatment. Nevertheless, there are products on the market that claim to boost telomerase. One example is Product B, containing four vitamins and 30 herbal ingredients including horny goat weed, thistle, ginseng, and green tea. There is no rationale for the mixture; the product appears to have been formulated by dartboard. Neither the individual ingredients nor the proprietary mixture have been tested to see whether they actually have any effect on telomerase. Or whether they actually retard aging or prolong life. Telomerase research is an intriguing area of study, and we can expect to know more in the coming years.

Happiness. People who are happy live longer, but that’s probably because people with poor health don’t live as long, and poor health makes people less happy.

Kurzweil’s fantastic anti-aging program. And then there’s Ray Kurzweil. A futurist, he is convinced that the Singularity is near, and in the near future science will conquer diseases, aging, and death itself. He’s convinced that if he can just stay alive to the age of 120, he will be able to profit from those scientific advances and will live forever, as he explains in his book Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. He collaborated with an anti-aging doctor named Terry Grossman to develop his personal plan: choking down a whopping 250 supplement pills every day at specified times along with 10 glasses of alkaline water, 10 cups of green tea, red wine, herbs, and a special diet; plus spending a day each week in the clinic getting IV vitamin infusions. He is confident that this regimen will keep him alive longer; I am not. And I’m not sure I would want to live like that even if the regimen were backed by good science.

Facing Facts

Death is an intrinsic part of life. According to an article in Scientific American by S. Jay Olshansky, Leonard Hayflick, and Bruce A. Carnes, three of the world’s leading aging scientists, “It is an inescapable biological reality that once the engine of life switches on, the body inevitably sows the seeds of its own destruction.” In the process of cell division, errors are made in copying DNA. As the mitochondria in our cells generate the energy that sustains us, they produce free radicals that cause damage. And radiation and other environmental factors cause mutations. There are repair mechanisms that limit the damage, but they are imperfect. Even if diseases of the elderly like cancer and heart disease could be eliminated, aging would carry on unimpeded, and people would still die eventually.

Humans are not programmed for destruction at a sell-by date. Aging is not a disease, but a side effect of the many different genetically determined processes that keep us functioning. Like everything else in medicine, it’s complicated.

Average life expectancy is longer today than at any time in human history, thanks to science, technology, and medicine. Sanitation, vaccines, and medical care have allowed people in the developed world to reach an average age of 75 for men and 80 for women.

Aging is not a disease, but a side effect of the many different genetically determined processes that keep us functioning. Like everything else in medicine, it’s complicated.

The maximum recorded human lifespan is 122 years. Can we prolong that? Probably not by much. And we don’t really want just longer life, we want more years of functional, quality, meaningful life. There would be little point in keeping a brain-dead, immobile body alive to the age of 130, even if we could do that.

People are always looking for simple solutions. Chiropractors have claimed that their adjustments add years to life. In an online forum a few years ago, chiropractors debated whether it was possible to die if the spine was in perfect alignment. Some of them apparently believed that keeping your spine straight would keep you alive forever. An interesting view, since chiropractors don’t live as long as medical doctors or even as long as the national average. Some people believe you can’t possibly get sick if you just eat the proper diet–but of course they disagree with each other about what that diet is. It would be wonderful if we could reverse aging, prolong life, and prevent cancer by simple measures like changing our diet, taking supplements, or visiting the chiropractor; but we can’t. Preventive health measures like nutritious diet, exercise, vaccines, and avoidance of carcinogens such as tobacco will not extend the natural lifespan; but they can help reduce premature death, suffering, and disability from diseases.

Don’t believe the headlines. The media love to hype “Fountain of Youth” claims. As I was writing this, a message popped up in my e-mail: “Breaking news: Is coffee the key to health and longevity?” It was a first report of an association between coffee consumption and longer telomeres. Not yet confirmed; correlation is not causation; headline not justified.

Skeptic magazine 21.4

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 21.4 (2016)

Buy the print edition
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Scientists have made great strides in understanding the processes involved in aging. We should listen to them rather than to entrepreneurs who are selling questionable products. In the aforementioned article in Scientific American, 51 scientists who study aging collaborated on a position statement about the current status of the science of aging. It contained this warning: “No currently marketed intervention—none—has yet been proved to slow, stop or reverse human aging, and some can be downright dangerous.” And “Anyone purporting to offer an anti-aging product today is either mistaken or lying.” Buyer beware!

Conclusion

As the panel of scientists said, no currently marketed intervention has been proved to affect aging. We are all going to die, and we are all going to experience reduced capabilities as we age. Rather than grasping at straws and believing false promises, we might as well try to cope with reality. We can lead a healthy lifestyle. We can change our attitudes, celebrating aging rather than deploring it. Studies show that the elderly are happier than younger people. As Betty Friedan said, “Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” END

About the Author

Dr. Harriet Hall, MD, the SkepDoc, is a retired family physician and Air Force Colonel living in Puyallup, WA. She writes about alternative medicine, pseudoscience, quackery, and critical thinking. She is a contributing editor to both Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer, an advisor to the Quackwatch website, and an editor of Sciencebasedmedicine.org, where she writes an article every Tuesday. She is author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon. Her website is SkepDoc.info.

24 Comments

  1. J. Gravelle says:

    (The plethora of Amazon ads for various anti-aging “supplements” at the foot of this article was an unanticipated but delightful O. Henry-esque punctuation.)

    = = =

    Re: Brother Kurzweil
    “He is confident that this regimen will keep him alive longer; I am not.”

    Whichever of you is right will be entitled to enjoy offering a smug “told’ja so”, and the party who is wrong will not need to suffer through the jeer, though ultimately, both will likely succumb to their mortality.

    A win-win scenario for a lose-lose proposition, I think…

    -jjg

  2. awc says:

    If the secret to longer life were found in simple adaptation… Evolution would have discovered it by now.

    Anecdote: I am extremely fit racing and winning triathlons (age group). Since I have got in shape my quality of life has gone up. A group I workout with are hard core fitness, diet and supplements people. They all believe they will live to be 130.

    Unfortunately,. I am old enough to see genetics overwhelm any effort to prolong life. So, maintain the quality as long as you can. Manage your relationships for the inevitable.

    Then again. .. hopes well springs eternal.

    Awc

  3. Tzindaro says:

    One possibility occurs to me: If someone discovered a way to prolong youth, why would they tell anyone about it? Some people might keep it secret, sharing it only with their families and a few close friends.

    Not everyone is altruistic enough to blab it all over town. Some might not need the money, so they would have no motive to profit from marketing the secret, some might fear overpopulation if the secret became public, some might think they could gain more in the long run by making very long term investments.

    If the secret process needed something from an endangered species, for example, some people would decide not to make it public. What if a process was discovered that required using material taken from human sacrifice victims? would you make that process public? What if the process only would work on members of one racial group and not on others? Imagine the social outcome of that! There are many potential reasons to keep such a process a secret instead of trying to sell it.

    There could already be some people among us who know how to greatly extend life-spans or restore youth, but they feel no need to tell the world.

  4. gregp507 says:

    “Unproven=false”
    Another myth.

    Neither true or false, but “unknown” or “unexplained” seems to be a difficult concept for skeptics and scientists, but uncertainty is the key to learning.

  5. Bob Clark says:

    Two points:
    First, the author should not have dismissed the beneficial effects of testosterone. “Testosterone is being hyped as a cure-all for aging men, but it is useful only for men with diagnosed hormone deficiency.”

    It’s not a cure-all, but it can be remarkably effective for awhile in older men. BTW all men past the age of 30 could accurately be described as “diagnosed hormone deficiency.”

    Second, evolution didn’t find a way to engineer longer living because it can only work by affecting the proportions of gene-types that reach an age and ability to reproduce. Living longer can’t really be selected for.

  6. Mark says:

    Many of the supplements improve the quality of life, not the length of life, however, Donating blood is suppost to increase the length of life. Fresh new blood that your body makes is better for you than your old stale blood. I believe Blood transfusions from young adults might might make an old person last a few years extra more beyond just donating. I don’t think you can do that, however I think That would increase the life span and quality of life. However people that donate blood do live longer. There may be many unrelated reasons for that. So Maybe a test to see if blood from old people makes you die sooner would be the test to figure it out. This was a great article. Got my little mind thinking.

    • DANIEL GAUTREAU says:

      Stale bood? Whatever is that? Sounds like you’ve been reading the snake-oil pitches on FaceBook. There is no such thing as “It’s supposed to…”. People suppose things. Things they don’t know but imagine that they do know. And they repeat these things to others . Medical researchers do not ever say “It’s supposed to…” …They say “It’s been shown to be true ” (or false), or “It’s unknown.”

  7. Harriet Hall says:

    Testosterone does have some beneficial effects, but it also has harmful effects, and the long-term safety has not been adequately studied. It is being over-prescribed and over-hyped at “Low T clinics.”

  8. ACW says:

    George Bernard Shaw (who lived to age 94):
    ‘Do not try to live forever. You will not succeed.’
    ;)

  9. Steve Waclo says:

    After we reproduce, or pass the age of optimal reproduction, evolution has no interest in our outcomes. Modern medicine, and charlatans, have been fighting that fundamental truth but there is a limit to our functional years and I believe we are up against that number.

  10. Steve Exton says:

    Thanks, Harriet. Loved your talk at the Australian Skeptics Convention late last year. Huge fan of all you do and other super skeptics. I’d guess that the various Quackeries would take off some years from a person’s life and lead to poorer health.

  11. Peter says:

    It’s a good article but it is based on current state of the technology. If the current trend of science and engineering evolution continues one could have some founded hope that the average current 80 years life span will be extended to over a 100. Founded on advances first in computing and information science that will in turn further enhance human brain modelling and analysis capabilities to:
    – find definitive personalised treatments through advanced medication (targeted, ) of uncurable diseases;
    – any (except brain) organ replacement with lab grown or artificial (bionic) ones;
    – alteration of biochemical processes to slow down cellular degeneration;
    – genetic engineering of enhanced (all kinds of desireable traits including increased longevity) children to give them a head-start adaptive advantage.
    The problem is all above entail social risks and have to be done through some social governance system, which even the most evolved civilised countries lack. But I think the robotization/automation of society will hit the social order first before these bio-genetical advanced technologies will.
    See the following related paper as well: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1403.8135.pdf

  12. M. Jean says:

    The author needs to do a little more research on estrogen. There are benefits.

    • Harriet Hall says:

      There are benefits and risks. Estrogens may prolong the life of some who would otherwise have died of certain diseases, but they shorten the lives of others. Prescribing estrogens as a universal anti-aging remedy to “keep women young” is not justified.

  13. BillG says:

    “I used to believe in reincarnation but that was in another life” ;)

  14. Patrick says:

    It seems fairly obvious (to me at any rate) that ageing is genetically programmed – it’s not simply a result of cumulative wear and tear. If this weren’t the case why would different species have such very different natural longevities? For evolution by natural selection to work, there must be continuous introduction of variation in the species by sexual reproduction in order to adapt to changing environments. This can only work if there is a constant turnover of individuals in the population. An ageless population would be static and quickly overpopulate its ecologic niche.

    If we accept this premise, then the given current rate of advancement in genetic knowledge, it seems fairly certain that we will unravel the (likely many) genes responsible for ageing. with the likely possibility they can be altered. So I think it’s very plausible that ageing can be conquered, within the limits of accident, wear and tear. Desirable? Perhaps for a time for those who could afford it; for humanity, almost certainly not.

  15. allen d. levine says:

    as long as neuronal apoptosis remains an accepted fact, there are defined limits to continued “life” as an intact organism. Nothing along that line has appeared to change our prognosis.

  16. hans lodder says:

    Hi there, what a downer your article is…
    However i really think that with increasing knowledge of DNA we are nearer then ever in surprising results towards anti aging.
    Saying that evolution does not support this is ignoring the fact that more and more man is creating its own evolution, beyond nature’s speed and also true in evolution is that it seems to make sudden jumps
    with unexpected outcomes.
    so, in short, let’s discuss this again 100 years from now.
    There will be surprises…that I promise
    regards
    Hans Lodder

  17. S. Jay Olshansky says:

    Dr. Hall. Congratulations on a well researched and extremely well written article on an important topic.
    Regards,
    S. Jay Olshansky, Ph.D.

  18. alexander pope, india. says:

    the streets of ankara, roma, mughal delhi, baghdad, damscas jerusalem, and etc, were once filled with charltans and crooks disguised as vendors who sold miraculous potions and recipes; and, one of these secret recipes were the key to longevity and eternity. modern medical science, a part of it still carrys the grey brain of that old vendor; hence, nitwits and crooks still promote longevity and fountain of youth in new bottles, world wide. further more, some of these conmen talk is such an erudite manner with a scholarly coat who are clamorous enough to fool idiots who seek immortality. howard hughes was a fanatic among these idiots in the twentieth century.
    wishing all the best for those seek the unseekable…
    pope.

  19. Robert says:

    The average life expectancy 100 years ago was 45 years old. It is now (as the author has stated) 75 years for a male and 80 years for a female. This is in large part due to our understanding and control of the microscopic world around us (sanitation and antibiotics). Some might say that this near doubling of the average human lifespan is not true anti-aging/ longevity, but the simple avoidance of an early death. I disagree. I believe that staying as healthy as possible for as long as possible allows for the greatest quality of life and potential for length of life. This increase was achieved through a rational exploration and subsequent understanding of our reality.

    Anti-aging and longevity pursuits do not have to be relegated to mythological fountains. It is certain that we need to critically assess current claims made (as we should and all things), but that doesn’t mean that these current claims cannot be part of the larger puzzle. We are told there are a higher number of people living beyond 100 years old in our society then ever before. We see that 120 years is achievable. If we can learn how to increase our health throughout life so as to optimize the quality and quantity of life, thus adding another 20–30%, how is realizing our human potential not anti-aging/longevity?

    By the way, I am a chiropractor but have never suggested that mobilizing the spine would affect a person’s life expectancy. I do teach patients how to optimize their health and avoid disease without the use of drugs (as much as possible). I would hope that such a well read author versed in critical thinking would not imply a generalization based on one conversation she read.

  20. Nathan Krawitz says:

    I’ve thought about telomeres and think a future treatment is possible. It would require using a virus to replace every single nucleus in your body with a fresh copy, each with a fresh set of telomeres.

    My guess is that once treatment is done, your bodies time clock would reset to about 25. Your skin would unwrinkle, your hair would get thicker and return to its natural color and all other signs of aging revert to a younger time.

    By replacing all your DNA, you also get rid of any cancer that might be lurking about. What this treatment can’t do is prevent aging, future illnesses or fix any existing muscularskeletal problems. Plus, if you are older when this therapy was started, you would need exercise to build up muscles. Any extra fat you have won’t magically go away, either.

    This theoretical treatment opens up other possibilities: gene therapy. You can fix errors that contribute to genetic disease. This should have no ethical problems, but then you have someone wanting to change eye color, hair color, baldness, breast size and just about anything else. Results might vary. Then you might go as far as changing someone’s height, intelligence strength and other things, especially in early youth, which is a huge ethical problem.

  21. Ricardo Silva says:

    bibliography?

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