Ever since humans began selling stuff, hucksters have tried to capitalize off of people’s fears of getting old, of losing their flexibility and athleticism, and of leading a generally less exciting and visceral life. An interesting — if slightly scary — editorial in Journal of the American Geriatrics Society highlights two modern-day instances of this that have run amok: Marketers pushing ever-increasing quantities of testosterone and growth hormone (GH) on people who don’t actually have any medical need for these substances, and who may be harmed by them.
The folks who sell testosterone — often online, directly to consumers — have, authors Thomas Perls and David J. Handelsman argue, succeeded in greatly expanding the boundaries of the real-life condition hypogonadism, in which the testicles don’t produce enough testosterone. Now, online consumers are bombarded with ads asking them if they might be suffering from “age-related hypogonadism” or “low T” or “andropause.”
The problem is that there isn’t any real evidence these are actual medical conditions. Shady marketers are profiting off of blowing up a kernel of truth — if you have actual hypogonadism, then yes, you could be prescribed testosterone — and creating a funhouse-mirror version of aging. Go online, for example, and you can find questionnaires created by testosterone sellers “focusing on common complaints such as low energy, feeling sad, sleep problems, decreased physical performance, or increased fat,” as the editorial puts it.
But none of these symptoms, on their own, indicate that the sufferer needs to supplement his testosterone levels. The people who profit off this business “have stretched the definition of hypogonadism” to the point where the normal signs of getting a bit older are treated like a disease that has to be “cured” with testosterone, despite the fact that there’s no medical evidence testosterone should be used in this way and some evidence that doing so can lead to potentially life-threatening cardiovascular problems. The definition of hypogonadism has gotten so lax, the authors point out, that some estimates are claiming 40 percent of aging men suffer from it. (As a general rule, if 40 percent of people suffer from a disease that isn’t part of some mass outbreak, there could be a problem with how you’re defining it.)
A similar process is happening with GH. It does have valid medical uses in a few rare instances, but it’s being treated as a magical cure-all for age-related complaints. Marketers are claiming that “GH levels fall with aging, and therefore, GH supplementation will reverse aging, obesity, wrinkles, and decreased sex drive” — claims which, suffice it to say, have not been proven in clinical settings. Older people who fall for these claims probably aren’t going to experience any anti-aging breakthroughs, but they could develop “carpal tunnel-like syndrome, arthralgias, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and edema[.]”
According to the authors, the FDA and Health Canada are starting to catch on to all this and tighten up various rules. In the meantime, though, it’s just way too easy for hucksters to push their wares online.