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Would You Visit the One-Stop Anti-Aging Shop?

An expert envisions a future of ever-younger people seeking ever-riskier treatments

posted by Margaret Morganroth Gullette, June 1, 2012 More by this author

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Margaret Morganroth Gullette is a Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis.


facial mask electrophoresis procedure
iStockphoto | Thinkstock
“Anti-aging” medicine is a fantasy.

Probably the most longed-for pharmaceutical intervention in history, an omnibus anti-frailty pill, “is not on the horizon,” aging expert Dr. Muriel Gillick of Harvard Medical School has written. Such a drug is not even conceivable. In a report from The Hastings Center, a bioethics and public research institute, a group of leading gerontologists affirm that “no currently marketed intervention — none — has yet been proved to slow, stop or reverse human aging, and some can be downright dangerous," such as unregulated supplements consumers are persuaded to use in place of effective medical treatments. But the marketers whom the institute labels "clinical entrepreneurs" continue to "exaggerate the state of scientific knowledge" to redefine more of us as "defective, abnormal or inferior" in the rush to push their products.

It is not difficult to envision the following scenario in a matter of years:

Juvenilandia, "The One-Stop Anti-Aging Shoppe," has finally opened in your town and you want to see what all the hype is about. Before you enter, you pass by a group of intergenerational protesters holding signs reading, "Fight Ageism, Not Aging," and "Respect the Precautionary Principle," the idea that manufacturers must prove that the chemicals they put in products are safe, rather than waiting for the public to show that they cause harm. You've read that this radical movement has chapters across the country, closely allied with the disability, feminist and progressive communities.

The Shoppe's interior is luxe and calm. Ribbed mirrored glass and stainless-steel walls rise like a cathedral vault. Fresh flowers in five-foot-tall vases are bathed in yellow light. As you size up the other customers, you observe that little could be mechanically wrong with anyone able to walk on those slick marble floors. No walkers or canes here. Instead, ladies in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s all stalk on heels high enough for Sex and the City characters. As for the staff, standing by the oxygen bar to welcome you, they are chic and well-coiffed.
 

The largest section of the Shoppe displays over-the-counter “supplements,” none of them regulated or FDA-approved, but each boasting of a body of research” proving its necessity. There is topical estrogen; rehydrating creams for the skin; an “organic” compound to shrink the prostate; and crushed herbs to reverse memory loss. Green packaging with paeans to nature abound, and beneath the large-type promises hide small-print warnings of potentially dire side effects. Juvenilandia executives, nonphysicians all, claim they do not traffic in Human Growth Hormone, but it's available here for those who know which products to look for for example, those promoted as relieving angina and macular degeneration, and helping kidney dialysis.

In well-lighted suites along the sides of the Shoppe, cosmetic surgeons await customers. Since the numbers of surgery-seekers has been dropping since 2004, they mostly peddle Botox and laser treatments now. A “hand lift” takes 10 minutes, and costs about $1,200. Toward the back, pharmacists in starchy white coats recommend DHEA and other treatments for off-list uses. Middle-aged customers come in with their parents’ Aricept prescriptions. The "smart pills" aren't helping their moms' and dads' dementia, but these harried office workers swear by them.
 
In a discreet corner, young computer experts hack away. A member of the squad asks Dorian, a new client in his late 40s, "How much younger would you like to be?" Dorian asks for 10 years, and, after processing payment, the hacker uses proprietary software to locate and revise all evidence of Dorian's chronological age, transforming his every public and private record, from Facebook to college transcripts, and from employee reviews to vacation photos. "It's good sense to want to be younger in this market," the hacker says. "All the decent jobs with seniority ladders have been offshored."

What could make this fictional Juvenilandia a reality, aside from the economic pressures to appear youthful in the workplace? The groundwork laid by a culture that sees aging-past-youth as little but a set of diseases. Lacking an actual miracle potion, anti-aging flacks exaggerate the state of their scientific knowledge and play on our dreams of permanent avoidance of old age. Shilling for them, the media announce far-off concepts as thrilling, breaking news. And so more useless, more dangerous choices become available every day to those of us who don’t read the fine print. 
 
We're absorbing a DIY mentality about our bodies, ignoring established medical sense to chase the preposterous goal of remodeling ourselves to compete with younger people who will, after all, age past youth soon enough in their turn.

If more of us join that imagined picket line outside Juvenilandia, protesting the vicious truncation of the human life course, we could close it down. Grab a sign.
 
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