Turn back time
These proponents of anti-aging medicine say it’s possible to reverse the physical effects of getting older
Diane Underwood stood over her grandmother’s deathbed, watching with sad brown eyes underlined by dark circles.
“I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t look at me that way,” the dying woman asked.
“I’m looking at me,” answered the then-30-year-old Underwood, who strongly resembled her grandmother and had some inkling of what part genetics might play in her own future.
After that day, Underwood took a personal inventory of her health. The list started something like this: mercury poisoning, chronic fatigue, persistent dark circles under the eyes, cystic acne, cellulite, back pains and the worst allergies anyone’s ever seen.
“I thought to myself, ‘If this is 30, what the flip is 40 going to be like?’ “ muses Underwood, who’s adorned with magnetic gold jewelry and a mop of long brunette braids.
Her grandmother died from adverse reactions to pharmaceutical drugs, Underwood says. So, she went another route, which eventually led her here, to the Reverse Aging Club.
Underwood is a member of a growing group of Americans who believe that concrete, scientific methods may be used to stop the progression of age in humans in order to extend life. This group—called anti-aging or reverse- aging—hypothesizes that the actual “disease” of aging can be treated, as opposed to the treatment of symptoms, such as plastic surgery for facial wrinkles. In northern Nevada, there are several practitioners, including Underwood. In Carson City, Dr. Frank Shallenberger takes up the standard.
Never mind that “reverse aging” has yet to receive governing medicine’s stamp of approval and that the Chicago-based American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine is on Quackwatch’s “questionable” list. Books on the subject are climbing up The New York Times’ Best Seller list, and people of all ages are flocking to clinics in hope of reversing the ravaging effects of time. Some clinics charge clients big bucks—up to $20,000 a year—to drink from the ostensible fountain of youth. Underwood’s club is less expensive than that.
Bach’s three-part musical inventions play through the sound system. In the corner, a patron lying on a magnetic mattress sticks her ankles in a gyrating spinal-alignment machine. Two- and four-person saunas—a special kind known as “far-infrared saunas"—quarter off a section of the 2,000-square-foot space.
Underwood launched the Reverse Aging Club with one far-infrared sauna in a rented room in the back of a wellness clinic three years ago. Since then, she claims she’s put in 10,000-plus hours lecturing to the medical community across the United States on the health benefits of the saunas. She says that many saunas she sells to doctors wind up in their homes.
“It’s a detox,” explains Underwood. “When you sit in an infrared sauna, the light penetrates your skin up to three inches. It’s very deep, very cellular. What happens is your whole body starts producing a sweat. Now, it’s not just your skin that’s sweating; your organs are also up to that core temperature. Doctors call it ‘whole body regenerative therapy'; we just call it ‘sauna sessions.’ “
Far-infrared saunas run a comfortable 100 degrees—cooler than traditional saunas—and induce an artificial fever, thereby killing pathogens, increasing the metabolism, the heart rate, blood circulation and lymphatic flow while burning calories.
The saunas have caught on in cancer clinics, as diseased cells do not like heat and start to shrivel at temperatures of 103 degrees or higher. In clinical applications, insurance companies may cover treatments.
Underwood puts a $100 price tag on her club’s monthly membership, one she believes most people can afford. To reel in skeptics, she offers one free visit.
Joyce Allen, an ex-skeptic, floats across the carpet in a tropical-red beach wrap, sipping the club’s “Living Water,” holistic water with a magnetic charge. Her voice is soft.
“Diane kept saying, ‘Come on over, come on over,’ and the only reason I came here was because there was a whole-food potluck.”
Allen settles into a two-seater sauna. A pitcher of magnetic water sits atop a pedestal outside the door. Allen, a natural type-A personality, was diagnosed with chronic-fatigue syndrome in 1995, a condition that keeps her from reaching deep sleep’s delta pattern. As her condition worsened, she went from an active professional and community life to accepting disability payments from the government. On top of that, she’s also battling cancer and just finished chemotherapy.
“I don’t have a clue what is in this little room,” says Allen of the sauna. “But there’s something here that lets me sleep.”
Since joining the club, Allen says her condition has improved greatly. Besides feeling better, her skin’s more radiant. She can now lift her right arm, walk the dog and go to movies (she couldn’t stand the noise level in theaters before).
“Infrared sauna is part of the answer. It may not be the whole answer, but it’s a major part for me right now,” Allen concludes after almost a month of daily visits.
Members seek out the Reverse Aging Club for a variety of reasons: stress release, medical ailments, obesity (one member testifies she went down four dress sizes just by sitting in sauna sessions) or merely to preserve youthful looks.
“I should have called it the ‘Feel Better Club,’ “ Underwood says.
The Carson City clinic
“It’s all just starting to happen.”
Frank Shallenberger’s voice booms through the telephone receiver with the personality that could best be described by the title of his book, Bursting with Energy.
Carson City-based Shallenberger, medical director of the Nevada Center of Alternative and Anti-Aging Medicine, is a relative late-comer to the anti-aging-medicine scene, an offshoot of the Life Extensionist Movement of the 1960s. While anti-aging practitioners have long struggled with a means to test their practices and gain credibility, Shallenberger’s contribution is the development of a computer program he says calculates a person’s biological (as opposed to chronological) age. The basic formula is based on an individual’s oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production at rest and during various levels of exercise.
In the past, commonly used age markers have included testing blood pressure and cholesterol levels—which increase, but not always, with years. Oxygen consumption, says Shallenberger, decreased with age across the board. By increasing the body’s energy production, Shallenberger maintains, the process of aging can be curbed and in some cases even reversed.
Pulling from a dozen or so anti-aging premises, from the free-radical to the neuroendocrine theory, Shallenberger developed what he refers to as a bottom-line theory.
“They’re all good theories,” says Shallenberger, “but they’re parts to the puzzle. The single thing that overlays everything is oxygen consumption.”
For years, he received little support for his ideas, but during the last six months, clinics based on the Shallenberger school of thought have cropped up. This month, one opened in Beverly Hills, Calif., and another in Buffalo, N.Y.
He developed his anti-aging strategies during the last 10 years through research—navigating the medical library in Washington, D.C., online and pouring over old studies on chimpanzees and rats from obscure medical journals by night. With the help of his computer program he compiled a database of stats from his patients, measuring changes in their biological ages over the course of his treatments.
What’s the price of youth? In Shallenberger’s clinic, a patient can get into an anti-aging program for $600 to $800 a year.
Shallenberger considers the sum commanded by many anti-aging professionals to be almost criminal, and if he gets his way, youth won’t be wasted on the young—or the rich.
“It’s the everyday, average person we need to focus on," Shallenberger says.