June 23, 2004 (New York) --The fountain of youth is still more myth than reality, but researchers say they're inching closer to revealing the secrets of the aging process that have mystified them for ages.
At a conference today in New York City, experts debated the hope and hype of antiaging research and warned that the market for antiaging products is growing much faster than the science to support them.
Each year, Americans spend more than $1 billion on antiaging cosmetics alone, and the demand for antiaging medicines to help baby boomers live longer, healthier lives is growing rapidly as boomers reach retirement age.
"Part of the problem with many individuals selling antiaging medicines to the public is that they are suggesting that because they can modify the risk of a particular disease that they are altering the aging process itself," says S. Jay Olshansky, PhD, professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "What we're saying is we don't know."
Researchers say the secret to long life is more than just dodging diseases. Until that mystery is resolved, any antiaging medicine that promises long life can only deliver a lighter wallet.
"Many lay people don't want to understand that masking changes doesn't change the aging process," says Leonard Hayflick, PhD, professor of anatomy at the University of California, San Francisco.
Antiaging Products: The Hype
Although treatments, such as human growth hormone injections, vitamin and mineral supplements, and other types of hormone therapy are widely sold as "antiaging" medicines, researchers say there is little scientific evidence to support their claims.
Olshansky says the problem is not that there isn't a potential benefit to these treatments, but that they have yet to be evaluated in clinical trials to determine their safety and effectiveness.
"In my view, these products simply should not be used until they are properly evaluated," says Olshansky, who is also a senior research associate at the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "There are plenty of examples of products that were sold in the past before they were evaluated using clinical trials, and once the clinical trials came in, it was determined that they were indeed harmful."
At the conference, co-hosted by The American Federation for Aging Research and The Gerontological Society of America, researchers also debated whether aging is a disease that needs to be treated or stopped.
Rather than searching for the fountain of youth to transform older people into a younger version of themselves, researchers say efforts should be focused on improving and extending the period of health and vigor and reducing frailty and disability at all ages.
"What we should be pursuing is way to slow down the biological process of aging rather than stopping it. Delay is the operative word, stopping or reversing should not be in our vocabulary," says Olshansky.