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Questionable Care at Trendy Anti-Aging Clinics

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These So-Called Clinics Don’t Practice Medicine

Rather like specialty boutiques compared with department stores, anti-aging clinics staffed with doctors that can supposedly dial back the clock are popping up all over the country. It’s understandable that people are tempted to try to forestall the rude effects of time on their bodies and brains, yet it is important to put these so-called specialized medical practices in context. Neither the American Medical Association nor the American Board of Medical Specialties recognizes anti-aging as a “specialty” or “subspecialty.”

Not incidentally, it’s estimated that physicians earn between $4,000 to $20,000 a year for each new anti-aging patient who becomes a regular customer. The anti-aging industry is projected to take in more than $70 billion in 2009. That’s motivation enough for many doctors to attend “training sessions” sponsored by organizations such as the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, which more than 17,000 physicians have already joined. Though this type of training and these programs don’t break any rules, the certification does not stand up to the rigors of other specialties.

What is it that anti-aging clinics actually do? Does anti-aging medicine work? More important, is it safe? I posed these questions to Daniel Perry, executive director of the not-for-profit Alliance for Aging Research in Washington, DC. It’s a case of buyer beware, Perry warns. Don’t spend a lot of money on treatments that may not be medically necessary, and in some cases have dangerous side effects.

Much of the “care” delivered in an anti-aging clinic takes the form of megadoses of vitamins, herbs, supplements and hormones for which little scientific data exists to back up the claims of benefits. Another concern: Aging is not a disease, so insurance companies are unlikely to cover costly treatments. These can quickly add up — think several thousand dollars for your first visit and hundreds more for each follow-up. Recommended supplements — often more than a dozen a day — may cost another few hundred dollars a month and assorted hormone prescriptions as much as several thousand. It’s not small change.

SPA SERVICES, NOT MEDICAL CARE

It seems to be human nature to want to stop or at least slow down the aging process. We can count on a continuing stream of scientific research on ways to intervene and engineer aging to our benefit. But anti-aging clinics are more like spas than medical practices, however. They may offer ways to help you feel good, but they can’t stop time.

The best path to healthy aging continues to be and will likely remain a healthy lifestyle. If you feel unwell, tired or under the weather, see your physician. An examination and blood tests may reveal specific deficiencies (eg, vitamin B-12, vitamin D, hormones) that can be corrected with appropriate supplements or other measures. Just be careful that you aren’t taking anything you don’t need, as doing so can do more harm than good.

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Daniel Perry, executive director of the not-for-profit Alliance for Aging Research in Washington, DC.

Date: December 8, 2008
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