Hormone replacement to prevent aging: does it work?

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A brighter, happier mind.  Increased strength, stamina and energy. Regain the wonderful qualities of youth.

All this and much more, advocates say, can be achieved with hormone replacement therapy.

53-year-old Henry Robbins is one of the true believers.

"I just couldn't sleep," he said. "I had joint pain and aches. I had an ED problem. And then once I got on the therapy, probably within three months all those went away."

Robbins works for HRC Medical in West Columbia.

The company offers therapy for men and women using so-called "bio-identical" hormones derived from natural sources. Specifically, wild yam plants.

Those substitutes for estrogen, testosterone and progesterone are formed into pellets and implanted under a patient's skin.

HRC claims the results are profound.  Dr. Connie Casebolt is the West Columbia clinic's medical director.

"We've had people feel it the next day," said Casebolt. "Typically, though, we tell people to expect something like a one to three week time frame before they really start to feel it."

"We have this great opportunity to educate and replace those hormones," said Casebolt. "And it kind of helps turn back the clock. Not totally, but it's a good strategy to help regain youthful energy and so forth."

The HRC outlet is one of more than three dozen in the Nashville, TN-based chain operating in 22 states. It is part of an increasingly high profile hormone replacement industry.

It's an industry that features startling claims of benefits ranging from effortless weight loss, better memory, smoother skin and sharper vision to thicker hair and faster healing from wounds and illness.

This web site for the Kingsberg Medical clinics is loaded with images of happy, athletic people. One woman is shown frolicking on a mountainside, presumably after hormone therapy.

Along with services provided by clinics, there are also many over the counter products that seem to promise similar results.

A newspaper ad for a testosterone booster called Formula T-12 shows a man with the physique of a superhero.

But other doctors say claims like these have to be considered very carefully.

Dr. Mark Wild is an OB-GYN at Palmetto Health Baptist Hospital in Columbia.

"There is no magic pill that's going to turn back the clock and make a patient feel and act 20 years younger than she is," said Wild. "We know that there are benefits of hormone replacement. And we also know that there are risks of hormone replacement."

Among documented risks involving some forms of hormone therapy: increases in breast and ovarian cancer, gallbladder disease, blood clots and stroke.

Dr. Casebolt said those problems are mostly linked to the use of synthetic or animal-derived hormones, not the "bio-identical" varieties administered by her company.

"The bio-identical hormones do not seem to confer any additional risk and in fact, there's some evidence they may decrease risk of cancers and so forth," said Casebolt.

Wild says, prove it.

"Anytime that I'm trying to pick a medication for a patient or a treatment for a patient, I'm trying to say what's the research out there? Show me the proof that this works," he said. "Unfortunately, with a lot of the bio-identical hormone replacement and a lot of the compounded bio-identical hormone replacement, the data is just not out there."

Wild cited a report just out from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Among its conclusions: "evidence is lacking to support superiority claims" of compounded bio-identical hormones over conventional hormone therapy.

Effectiveness aside, there's also the matter of cost, which can vary widely and may not be covered by insurance.

Robbins shrugged off his expenses, which he said run on average what he would pay for a daily cup of premium coffee.

To him, it's money well spent.

"It just changes your outlook on life," he said. "It gives you hope for the future."

In the interest of full disclosure, HRC Medical is an advertiser on WIS-TV.

The hormone therapy industry has been under some scrutiny in other states.

A few months ago in Tennessee, state lawmakers unanimously approved legislation putting new restrictions on hormone replacement clinics.  The new law requires doctors to have direct supervision of hormone therapy and patients have to get a physical and provide a full medical history before they begin therapy.

The North Carolina medical board has also taken a critical look at hormone clinic operations.

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