Footballers at the fountain of youth? Anti-ageing clinics and corruption in sports

Anti-ageing are for professional footballers wanting to stay on top or couch potatoes with anxieties about virility. jfre81/Flickr

For at least 500 years, people have been announcing the fountain of youth. Swallow pills to stay perpetually youthful. Eat the right combination of vitamins, muesli, herbs and drugs to live forever. Accept a weekly injection to reverse ageing.

This week, a much-criticised report from the Australian Crime Commission (anecdote rather than analysis, alarms rather than statistics) announced that Australian sport is rife with the consumption of peptides and other performance aids.

The announcement, gleefully embraced by the media, comes after the revelation that Lance Armstrong had indeed been enhancing his performance on the way to gold and glory. The ACC report has triggered interest in use by athletes and non-athletes alike of “anti-ageing” services.

The science, ethics and legality of anti-ageing services is problematic, irrespective of whether those services are for professional footballers who want to stay on top or couch potatoes with anxieties about virility and wrinkles.

“Staying young” is an old and often bizarre story. Last century’s research into hormones was accompanied by what we would now regard as quack medicine and journalistic gullibility. One example was the claim that men – those who could pay – could stay young or rediscover their youth by having implants from goats, gorillas and other creatures. Yes, that’s what was euphemistically described as “monkey glands”. It was, in fact, a whole or sliced gorilla testicle inserted into a human scrotum.

The treatment didn’t give recipients the strength of King Kong. But it may, unfortunately, have exposed the men to some nasty infections. Miracle diets also proved disappointing, particularly when leading advocates succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, cancer or the common cold.

More recently, people have been using synthetic hormones, blood doping and exotic cocktails to recover quicker, go faster or simply look less wrinkled. Let’s recall the “roid rage” excuse used by bouncers and controversy over hormone replacement therapy. Self-medication involving steroids or fake drugs can have nasty effects such as anger, increased hairiness, acne, impotence, higher incidence of bladder and liver cancer and even testicular atrophy.

Nature didn’t intend you to shoot up with horse hormone or a bizarre cocktail of chemicals accessed via mates, gyms, the internet and pubs. People also rely on anti-ageing superfoods or nutraceuticals, echoing past faith in megadoses of vitamin C (more likely to result in cystitis than immortality) and muesli.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission ACCC and the Therapeutic Goods Administration TGA sometimes crimp deceptive advertising about such products. Saying that something tastes good is fine. Claiming medicinal properties without substantiation through research is not permitted. Headlines that you can “cheat death” raise regulatory ire.

Some consumers believe in “white coat magic” – medical practitioners promoting services through anti-ageing clinics. That promotion typically features references to DNA, given that most people have heard enough about the genome to be impressed but don’t know enough to critically evaluate claims.

One Australian clinic, apparently aimed at 50-somethings rather than footballers, boasts of cracking “the code of entirely rejuvenating the human body from within”. Entire rejuvenation, like Benjamin Button? The same clinic indicates that “literally millions of dollars” were spent to “perfect the ultimate anti-aging treatment”.

If the fountain of youth has been discovered – just a pill or two, or some injections – you might wonder why the treatment isn’t available everywhere. Wouldn’t the tax office be delighted if we were all busy working at 110 rather than in a nursing home?

One answer is that clinics, like the cosmetics industry, offer hope wrapped in expensive packages. Their scientific basis is contested. Particular diagnoses and therapies such as HRT are problematical or strongly criticised. As are clinical ethics, which suffer the same problems we’ve seen in erectile dysfunction services.

Some clinics have a “take the money” ethos, relying on regulators not catching up with the ads or actual practice. They survive and thrive because services are falsely billed as a legitimate treatment or are accepted therapies for conditions not evident in the consumer. Some offer “complementary health” or “wellness”, falling outside standard regulation of registered practitioners.

Responses? What about consumer education, beefing up customs to crimp steroid imports and meaningfully regulating “alternative practitioners” rather than the bogey of “organised crime”?

Or, we could, of course, respect the ripeness of old age rather than enshrining “teens and twenties” as our cultural of desirability. Love your wrinkles and the wisdom that goes with them!

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