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Boomers will be spending billions to counter aging

- - Sunday, August 21, 2011

NEW YORK — Baby boomers heading into what used to be called retirement age are providing a 70 million-member strong market for legions of companies, entrepreneurs and cosmetic surgeons eager to capitalize on their "forever young" mindset, whether it's through wrinkle creams, face-lifts or workout regimens.

It adds up to a potential bonanza. The market research firm Global Industry Analysts projects that a boomer-fueled consumer base, "seeking to keep the dreaded signs of aging at bay," will push the U.S. market for anti-aging products from about $80 billion now to more than $114 billion by 2015.

The boomers, who grew up in a culture glamorizing youth, face an array of choices as to whether and how to be a part of that market.

Anti-aging enthusiasts contend that life spans can be prolonged through interventions such as hormone replacement therapy and dietary supplements. Critics, including much of the medical establishment, say many anti-aging interventions are ineffective or harmful.

From mainstream organizations such as the National Institute on Aging, the general advice is to be a skeptical consumer on guard for scams involving purported anti-aging products.

"Our culture places great value on staying young, but aging is normal," the institute says. "Despite claims about pills or treatments that lead to endless youth, no treatments have been proven to slow or reverse the aging process."

Its advice for aging well is basic: Eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, don't smoke.

"If someone is promising you today that you can slow, stop or reverse aging, they're likely trying hard to separate you from your money," said S. Jay Olshansky, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago's School of Public Health who has written extensively about aging.

"It's always the same message: 'Aging is your fault and we've got the cure,' " Mr. Olshansky said. "Invest in yourself, in the simple things we know work. Get a good pair of running or walking shoes and a health club membership, and eat more fruits and vegetables."

Such advice hasn't curtailed the demand for anti-aging products, including many with hefty price tags that aren't covered by health insurance. These include cosmetic surgery procedures at $10,000 or more, human growth hormone treatment at $15,000 per year and a skin-care product called Peau Magnifique that costs $1,500 for a 28-day supply.

Another challenge for consumers is that many dietary supplements and cosmetics, unlike prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines, aren't required to undergo government testing or review before they are marketed. The Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission crack down at times on egregiously false anti-aging claims, but people who don't get anticipated results generally have little protection.

Mary Engle, director of the FTC's division of advertising practices, said her agency focuses on the cases that could cause serious harm, such as bogus cancer treatments that might prompt an ill person to forgo proper care.

She said the agency lacks the resources to crack down comprehensively on ads with exaggerated claims that exploit customers' hopes for better looks or more energy.

"Often it doesn't rise to the level of fraud," she said. "There are so many problematic ads out there and we really have to pick and choose what we focus on."

In contrast to the caution of mainstream organizations, there are many vocal promoters of anti-aging products and procedures, including the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine. It hosts annual conferences in the U.S. and abroad and claims 22,000 members, mostly physicians.

In its mission statement, the academy says the disabilities associated with normal aging "are caused by physiological dysfunction which in many cases are ameliorable to medical treatment, such that the human life span can be increased."

One of the academy's co-founders is Robert Goldman, a doctor of osteopathic medicine. He contends that much of the resistance to the anti-aging movement comes from sectors of the health and pharmaceutical industries that feel threatened financially - for example by the surging use of over-the-counter nutritional supplements.

"It all has to do with who's controlling the dollars," he said.

Though many anti-aging interventions are expensive, Dr. Goldman said, people on tight budgets still can take useful steps such as drinking purified water, taking vitamins and using sunscreen.

"People should be healthy and strong well into 100 to 120 years of age," Dr. Goldman says in a biographical video. "That's what's really exciting - to live in a time period when the impossible is truly possible."

Mr. Olshansky, who over the years has been among Dr. Goldman's harshest critics, predicts eventual scientific breakthroughs, perhaps based on studies of the genes of long-lived people, that will help slow the rate of aging.

In the meantime, Mr. Olshansky says, "I understand the need for personal freedom, the freedom to make bad decisions."