Thursday, May 04, 2006

Weil Takes on Anti-Aging 'False Prophets'

By ARTHUR H. ROTSTEIN, Associated Press Writer Sun Oct 23, 2:12 PM ET

The best-known practitioner of integrative medicine, melding alternative and traditional approaches, has gone mainstream. Dr. Andrew Weil, whose 10th book came out Oct. 18, intends to raise the public consciousness about aging, and why it is and should be healthy.

In his view, advocates of anti-aging medicine, who tout regimens ranging from growth hormone to Botox and cosmetic surgery to stop the aging process, have become the 21st century equivalent of snake-oil purveyors - long on pitch and short on scientific substance. It's a charge that's been leveled at Weil for years.

Weil calls anti-aging advocates "false prophets who are putting out a message that aging is reversible or that we can stop it."

"I think those are very wrong ideas," he says during a recent interview at his Vai! l ranch, about 30 miles southeast of Tucson. "Aging is a universal natural process, and I think if you set yourself up in opposition to it, you're in a very wrong relationship with nature."

In his latest book, "Healthy Aging," Weil argues that there are no effective anti-aging medicines. Publisher Alfred A. Knopf is banking that Weil's streak of four straight best sellers will continue, with an initial printing of 650,000 copies.

Throughout his career, Weil has championed herbal remedies, acupuncture, osteopathy, cranial therapy, hypnotherapy and nutritional approaches to wellness, as well as traditional medicine.

He majored in botany as an undergrad at Harvard University, where he also went to medical school, graduating in 1968. He left the National Institutes of Mental Health after the first year of an internship to travel the world, pursuing his interest in plant study and herbal remedies. He largely supported himself through co! llege and the 1970s as a freelance magazine writer.

Then his car broke down in Tucson during the warm, wet winter of 1973, with the desert in full bloom, and he never left. Weil continued writing and eventually began lecturing at what was the University of Arizona's then-fledgling medical school about marijuana, which he said in interviews at the time was a mild intoxicant. Later, he began giving lectures on alternative medicine. He launched a first-of-its-kind integrative medicine program in the College of Medicine in 1997.

"My strong conviction always had been that the main business of doctors should be to teach people how not to get sick," he says. "That is, there should be a real emphasis on prevention and lifestyle adjustment."

He also believes that pharmaceutical drugs often "caused too much harm."

His focus on alternatives has put him at odds with many mainstream practitioners and academics.

One persistent critic, Dr. Arnold Relman, an editor emeritus of the New England Journa! l of Medicine and professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School, said he's long disagreed with Weil because "he believes in miracles, at least he used to."

"He believed in the healing power of thought, and going back to his earliest career, he's taken a position that usually flies in the face of science, and for that reason I've disagreed with him." But Relman does acknowledge that Weil has advocated some sensible things about diet and lifestyle.

Still, Weil's advocacy of such positions as broccoli being a cancer treatment and reliance on anecdotal evidence from patients "can't stand the light of scientific examination," Relman said. If Weil's anti-aging stand is based on hard, scientific, objective evidence, he added, "then I applaud it."

Weil said he decided to write about aging because of his concern about the rise of anti-aging medicine and said he hopes the book will trigger a national dialogue.

"Th! e most damaging perception out there is that the worth of human life diminishes with aging, and I've tried to make a case that aging brings its own rewards - that there can be an increase in the value of life, like fine wine," he says.

He acknowledges that skillfully done cosmetic procedures can provide "pleasing results" and enhance quality of life. But he takes issue if the reason for surgery is to deny that aging happens.

Weil's own appearance, including his trademark full white beard and a bald head, help to underscore his own age, 63. He remains very active, though a casual, almost idyllic home setting helps offset the hectic pace that swirls around him. He is divorced, his teenage daughter is in boarding school and he's "involved in a relationship."

A frequent guest on TV talk shows, he's committed to a 23-city, seven-week book tour, and he just appeared for the second time on the cover of Time magazine, which previously heralded him as one of the world's 100 most influential people. He wo! rks part time in the University of Arizona's integrative medicine program, writes a newsletter and a column for Prevention magazine. He offers vitamin, antioxidant and nutritional supplements, endorses skin care products and even pet foods on his Web site,, while giving daily advice on healthy living.

And he's just been sued over a five-year, $14 million deal, accused of failing to adequately market and promote an online pharmacy company as the exclusive distributor of his endorsed health care products. He called it a contract dispute.

Weil has lived for 11 years on his 120-acre ranch. It's one of about 30 "ranchettes," mostly 40-acre plots, carved out of the X-9 Ranch, once a historic cattle operation spread over 36,000 acres. Weil's property, set off behind a gated entrance, is the nowhere reached at the end of a three-mile rutted, tooth-jarring washboard ! dirt road.

Weil, who is partial to shorts, sandals and loose-fitti ng Hawaiian-style sports shirts, lives in a comfortable but hardly lavish setting in what was the X-9's main ranch house, rebuilt after a 1938 fire. "I have lots of friends; I have my dogs, who are wonderful companions," he says about Rhodesian ridgebacks Jambo and Daisy.

Large picture windows in his Mexican-tiled home look onto a patio and the Rincon Mountains. A spring-fed swimming pool sits on grounds dappled in shade by cottonwood, walnut and mesquite trees. There's also an outdoor garden and a large greenhouse. His various enterprises are run in nearby offices.

Weil believes he's aging gracefully. "I think I'm doing a pretty good job. I keep very active. I like my body. I'm generally not so bad. I enjoy coming into my own as an elder."

Some critics view him as a self-promoter and product huckster, but Weil says that all after-tax profits from his books and product sales go to his Weil Foundation to help fund his integrative me! dicine program.

And Weil does have his medical supporters.

Cardiologist Dr. Joseph Alpert of the University of Arizona, Weil's best friend from medical school, calls Weil a top leader in integrative medicine. "Has he brought credibility among physicians? Probably not. Has he brought credibility among patients? Definitely, yes. He's tremendously bright, an excellent communicator and a very good writer," Alpert said.

Twenty-six American medical schools and three in Canada have integrative or alternative medicine programs, and the Congress, recognizing a growing public interest, created the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 1999.

"From what it's meant to the public, he (Weil) has been the father of integrative medicine," raising public awareness and interest through his down-to-earth, sensible writing style, said Dr. Richard Liebowitz, medical director of Duke University's Center for Integrative Medicine! .

But while Andrew Weil pushes a diet rich in nuts and olive oil, multigrain breads, soybeans and fresh, organic fruits, vegetables and fish, he's been known to indulge a sweet or two.

On this day, it's a 20-pound peach pie sent by a friend and baked by Pam Rinella, who operates the mountaintop Mount Lemmon Cafe about 90 minutes from Weil's ranch.

"I haven't had any of her pies in years," he says, eying the fruity treat.

"That's a serious pie."