Women are willing to risk health complications, maybe even cancer, on the promise they can stay slim and beat back time.
Sometime after her 43rd birthday, Dawn Foley noticed she was beginning to look her age. And she didn’t like it one bit. A former beauty queen turned sales professional in Los Angeles, the blue-eyed brunette is used to turning heads. “I just did not want to look older,” she says. “You end up with wrinkles. Your skin starts to sag. And no matter how much you exercise, you just don’t have the body you had when you were 30.” She tried everything to stop the clock: diet pills that claim to stave off weight gain; photo facials and Fraxel laser treatment to rejuvenate skin and erase wrinkles. She even had her breasts lifted. “I’m happy with those,” she says. “But I wanted to look younger without any more surgery.”
Then Foley saw a news report about practitioners who claim we can reverse the aging process using a souped-up hormone regime. Getting old and fat is no longer inevitable, they said. It’s only a glandular disorder caused in part by dwindling hormones. And the way to fight that disorder is to replenish our levels to what they were in our 20s or 30s—whereupon we will once again feel as if we were that young. A little more digging brought Foley to Suzanne Somers’s best-selling books extolling the virtues of hormones. Somers, 62, takes daily shots of human growth hormone (hGH). Using a plastic applicator, she shoots a so-called bioidentical hormone called estriol directly into her vagina. She rubs bioidentical estrogen cream on her left arm every day, and two weeks out of the month adds progesterone on her right arm. “A lot of women, as they get older, their breasts start to droop,” Somers has said. “But when you put the hormones back in the right template, everything perks up again!”
Foley bought the pitch. “I thought, This is it! This is the magic potion!” she says.
Leading endocrinologists would call it something else: dangerous. “Use of these products for antiaging is based on hype, not science,” says Steven Petak, M.D., of Houston, president of the American College of Endocrinology. Despite what bloviating celebrities like Somers claim, there is no evidence that hormones have antiaging powers—and plenty of reasons to think they might cause harm, including diabetes and possibly cancer. Somers herself developed breast cancer while on her hormone-heavy routine and had a hysterectomy due to precancerous changes in her uterus. The FDA has not approved any of the substances for antiaging. In the case of hGH, it’s a flat-out felony to prescribe it for reasons other than short stature in children, AIDS wasting syndrome or a condition called growth hormone deficiency syndrome, which is so rare it affects fewer than 5 out of every 10,000 adults.
When Foley approached her ob/gyn seeking hormones, the doctor told her that her levels fell within the normal range of a woman her age and that she didn’t need any more. So Foley instead turned to the world of “age management,” whose practitioners have learned to skirt the law by expanding the definition of growth hormone deficiency syndrome to include almost anyone over the age of 30. “That’s one of the first things I learned,” Foley says. “If a regular doctor tests your levels, he’ll say you’re within range even if you’re all the way down at the low end. But [an antiaging] specialist is going to tell you, ‘You’re within the normal range, but if we bring those levels up, you’ll feel a whole lot better.'”