Can anti-aging supplements help you look younger?
The best way to age gracefully is with good habits, such as a healthy diet and regular exercise, and not just because the combination makes you look younger. Research shows that a healthy lifestyle offers most of the benefits that anti-aging products claim to provide—less body fat, improved energy, more vigor, and greater muscle strength—with none of the risky side effects of those products.
We looked at some of those claims and what you can actually expect from the products. Here’s what we found.
Reality: Flooding your system with a high concentration of vitamins intravenously speeds absorption into the bloodstream. That would seem to be a shoo-in for the super-healthy category. After all, if some is good, then more is better and even more is best, right? Not exactly.
“It needs further testing,” says the study’s author, David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. “Such drips can be beneficial for people with certain conditions, like those who have trouble absorbing nutrients through their gastrointestinal tract. But they should not be used routinely by people who are looking for a quick fix for their health.”
Consumer Reports says: For the vast majority, the best way to get vitamins is through your diet.
Reality: Store shelves are lined with bottles of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) supplements. But your body actually produces the hormone naturally. And while DHEA levels do usually begin to decline at about age 30—the same time age-related changes such as decreased muscle mass, reduced bone density, and cognitive impairment start to crop up—there’s no evidence that taking additional DHEA helps counteract those problems.
Consumer Reports says: Because there’s no evidence of effectiveness, and side effects can include lower levels of good cholesterol, increased facial hair in women, acne, and concerns about various types of cancer, you should pass on those supplements.
Reality: Scientists have known for awhile that omega-3 fatty acids—whether you get them from a pill or from food such as salmon and sardines—can help protect against heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and possibly other diseases. But is there a connection to aging?
A 2012 study from Ohio State University found that most overweight but otherwise healthy study participants who were middle-aged and older who took omega-3 supplements for four months altered the ratio of their fatty acids in a way that helped to preserve telomeres. It’s the first evidence to suggest that a nutritional supplement might actually help make a difference in aging.
Consumer Reports says: Although the study is intriguing, more research is needed. At this time there’s not enough evidence to recommend omega-3 supplements for their possible effect on telomeres. But eating fatty fish twice a week is well worth considering, especially since fish has well-documented cardiovascular benefits.
Reality: It’s not so much the wine per se but the resveratrol in the skin of the grapes that has been claimed to lengthen your life. And even that much isn’t certain. Research suggests that resveratrol mimics the effects of calorie restriction, which has been found to extend the lives of lab animals. Eating a low-calorie diet has been associated with not only a lower body mass index but also a reduction in blood pressure and improved memory.
Researchers hope that resveratrol will prove to be a more palatable way of getting the anti-aging benefits of calorie restriction while allowing people to eat and drink comfortably. But there’s no evidence that resveratrol will keep you young.
Consumer Reports says: You can give resveratrol a try, but in a glass, and in moderation—no more than 10 ounces of wine a day for men, 5 ounces for women. (See our Ratings and buying guide for wine.) But note that the research shows that for most people the heart-healthy benefits of drinking alcohol don’t outweigh all the potential risks, including disease and damage from imbibing too much.
Reality: The mystery of what causes hair to go gray seemed to be at least partly solved when researchers at the University of Bradford in England discovered that gray hair has lower-than-normal levels of the enzyme catalase. Why is that important? Hair cells produce hydrogen peroxide (used to lighten hair color) and catalase, which breaks down hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen, at least for awhile. As we age, the production of catalase slows down, leaving nothing to keep hydrogen peroxide levels from building up. As a result, the hair becomes gray (but just how gray depends on other factors, such as genetics and lifestyle).
The study, published in July 2009 in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal, didn’t prove that taking catalase in pill form prevents hair from turning gray. But that didn’t stop the makers of Go Away Gray from using the study to boost its claims that the product will “prevent and reverse gray hair.”
In addition, the catalase supplement hasn’t undergone any clinical trials to test how well it works or even its potential health risks. “There is no controlled data available,” says Robyn Gmyrek, M.D., division chief of cosmetic dermatology at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. “I would not ingest any substance of which I was unclear of the risks.”
Consumer Reports says: Don’t fall for this one. The research isn’t clear on whether or not catalase supplements are effective. The enzyme might be digested rather than absorbed into the targeted cells.
This article appeared in the September 2013 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.
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