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Dr. Richard Dupee offers some insight into the many alternative remedies offered on the market

Jan. 21 —  A recent medical study suggests that 60 percent of people over the age of 65 are using alternative medicines in the hopes of finding that “fountain of youth.” But are the claims of these medicines valid? And are they safe? On NBC’s “Today” show, Dr. Richard Dupee, chief of geriatrics at New England Medical Center, takes a look at some of the alternative therapies being offered over the counter at health food stores and drug stores. He offers his thoughts on some of their claims below.

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       SEVENTY-SEVEN MILLION baby boomers are entering the Medicare demographic in the next 10 years. A recent study from Mt. Sinai Medical Center found that 60 percent of people over the age of 65 are now using alternative medicines. This includes hormones, acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal therapies and vitamins (such as gingko and garlic), and over a billion dollars is spent each year in the United States on anti-aging medicines and sports supplements. But the question still remains, do they work?
       (Note: The following medications are not prescription. They can all be purchased over the counter at health food stores and drug stores.)

       Dhea is a steroid produced by the adrenal glands. It has been called “the anti-aging hormone.” Among the anti-aging claims are: boosts sexual performance, fights cancer, reduces risk for heart attack, reduces risk for diabetes and osteoporosis, and burns fat and builds muscle.
       Are the claims valid? Currently there is no data to support its use but there are ongoing trials. Research shows no benefit in breast cancer (possibly higher incidence), minimal decrease in risk for heart disease and actually a slight increase in women. One trial suggested weight loss induction in males — subsequent trials did not confirm this. It may be of help in the post-menopausal state, and may help ease symptoms of lupus. It may also improve mood and memory.
       Adverse effects: Due to the male hormone, side effects are acne, deeper voice, hair loss and rise in blood sugar. Dhea has been banned for all use in the U.K. and Canada. Higher doses can have serious health risks.
Health Library: Longevity

       Growth hormone:
Growth hormone is secreted naturally by the pituitary gland. It’s the primary hormone responsible for growth in humans. Levels at age 60 are 1/2 of those in young adults. Reduction in growth hormone contributes to decreased muscle mass and strength. Among the anti-aging claims are: enhances athletic and sexual performance, increased joint health, sleep aid, enhanced immune function, protects heart and brain.
       Are the claims valid? There is no evidence that oral human growth hormone has any health benefits. In several studies giving growth hormone to elderly males yielded no change in strength, but there was an increase in muscle mass and skin thickness, and a slight reduction in fat.
       Adverse effects: higher blood sugar levels, fluid retention, carpal tunnel syndrome, breast enlargement and headaches.

Estrogen is the female hormone produced by the ovaries and gonads. Levels drop sharply at menopause, and there are numerous synthetic and natural estrogen therapies available to women as a replacement after menopause.
       Are the claims valid? Estrogen replacement therapy makes sense if there is no family history for cancer or cardiac disease. It’s unquestionably effective in maintaining bone mass and reducing hot flashes.
       Adverse effects: Studies have shown there is an increase incidence in heart disease and an increase risk of breast cancer.

       Testosterone (also known as “androstenedione”):
       This hormone made in the adrenal glands and gonads. Commonly known as “andro,” it became popular because of its use by baseball player Mark McGuire. It was synthesized in the 1930s with an expectation it would become “the fountain of youth.” Among the anti-aging claims: increased muscle mass and strength.
       Are the claims valid? The data is unified regarding the serious health risks of the use of testosterone. It does play a role in patients with diminished libido and decreased testosterone levels, but is contraindicated in patients with prostate enlargement or prostate cancer.
       Adverse effects: Increased risk for prostate cancer, acne, breast enlargement, hair loss, behavioral changes, lowering of “good” cholesterol.

       Gingko biloba:
Gingko biloba is a traditional Chinese medicine herb which helps to boost memory. It’s the top-selling medicinal herb in the United States. It comes from the maidenhair tree. It’s an extract from the dried leaves.
       The claim is that it raises brain oxygen levels, which theoretically improves memory.
       Are the claims valid? Studies show gingko biloba doesn’t enhance memory for people who don’t have a significant memory problem. But it does improve memory slightly in people with Alzheimer’s.
       Adverse effects: It blocks platelets (cells that make your blood clot). You must stop two weeks before surgery.
Health Library: Elder care

       Vitamin E:
Vitamin E is an essential nutrient and a fat soluble vitamin. It’s a major antioxidant in the body. Among the anti-aging claims are: reverses skin aging, increases male fertility, increases sexual performance, and increases exercise performance.
       Are the claims valid? Numerous studies have yielded conflicting data, but there is currently no credible evidence that vitamin E reverses the aging process. It appears to be protective against heart disease and some forms of cancer and it may help in Alzheimer’s disease, but again, there are conflicting studies.
       Adverse effects: There are no real adverse effects. However, you should not take it with coumadin (blood thinner).

Ginseng and gingko biloba are the two most commonly used “anti-aging medicines.”
       The term ginseng applies to several plant species coming from various countries in Asia. Traditional Chinese medicine uses ginseng to restore a balance flow of “qi” (pronoun: chee), or “life energy.” In the United States, many athletes take ginseng as a sports performance enhancer.
       Are the claims valid? A number of well-performed studies confirmed that there is no significant difference between those who take ginseng and those who don’t in terms of heart rate, oxygen consumption, respiratory exchange rate, or total work load. In other words ginseng has no exercise benefits.
       Adverse effects: Only Asian ginseng has been reported to occasionally cause side effects, and there are many. The side effects increase when the use is extended beyond three months. They are mostly hypertension, rapid heart rate, vaginal bleeding, palpitations, along with sleeplessness.

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The active ingredients in garlic are allicin and alliin.
       Are the claims valid? They are unstable and cannot be put in a pill reliably. Garlic preparations may lead to a small reduction in total cholesterol at one month and three months, but not/not at six months.
       Adverse effects: Odorous breath and body odor.

       Vitamin C:
Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin and an essential nutrient. It is an important antioxident in the body.
       Are the claims valid? Numerous studies have yielded conflicting data, but there is currently no credible evidence that vitamin c reverses the aging process. Vitamin C “may” be protective against heart disease and certain cancers; it “may” lower blood pressure; it “may” decrease the risk of cataracts; and it “may” decrease the symptoms and duration of a cold.
       Adverse effects: There are no real adverse effects aside from stomach acidity.

       Vitamin A:
Vitamin A is important in maintaining proper functioning of the immune system. It plays a vital role in vision, skin differentiation, growth, reproduction, bone development, red and white blood cell formation and brain development. Some sources of vitamin A are liver, egg yolk, butter and cream.
       Are the claims valid? There is no credible evidence that vitamin A has any anti-aging effect. But it “may” have an anti-oxident activity and “may” reduce cancer. It also “may” help with certain skin conditions.
       Adverse effects: In large doses smokers have a significantly higher risk of lung and prostate cancer.

If you do choose to self-medicate with one of these alternative medicines, don’t forget to tell your primary-care physician that you are doing so. They could have an adverse effect when taken with other medications, and some medications need to be stopped many days before a surgery.
Try a holistic approach to keep living a functional and quality life without magical elixirs. The holistic approach includes: diet, exercise, smoking discontinuation, moderate use of alcohol, a network of relationships (family and friends) and a sense of purpose.

       Dr. Richard Dupee is chief of geriatrics at the New England Medical Center in Boston.

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