Regular readers of The Wall Street Journal's The Experts blog Monday were treated to a column by actress and anti-aging guru Suzanne Somers that decried Obamacare as "a socialist ponzi scheme." The post went viral online and was widely jeered, especially after The Journal appended three corrections (one about an apparently phony Winston Churchill quote, another about an unverifiable Vladimir Lenin quote, and a third stating that a horse was misidentified as a dog.) Others criticized Somers's qualifications on public policy.
But the most concerning part about Somers's apparent status as a health care expert was not her views on Obamacare but what she might like to replace it with.
She gives a hint in her introduction, when she states her credentials, such as they are, noting that she's written 24 books, many on "alternative and integrative" medicine. Since a bout with breast cancer, Somers has become, like other Hollywood celebrities, an evangelist for alternative medicine, penning books with titles like Bombshell: Explosive Medical Secrets That Will Redefine Aging.
If the promise in the title sounds too good to be true, it's because it is, according to Dr. Paul Offit, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, a prominent skeptic of alternative health care and anti-vaccine theories.
His latest book, this summer's Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, devotes an entire chapter to Somers. "When it comes to selling alternative medical products, perhaps no celebrity has been more financially successful than Suzanne Somers," Offit writes.
Somers has come out against chemotherapy, water fluoridation, and other conventional medical practices, but her biggest pet issue is a treatment for menopause and aging called natural bioidentical hormone replacement. Doctors used to prescribe hormones to replace the ones the body stops producing during menopause, but they stopped when they discovered that the treatment likely boosted the risk of heart disease, stroke, breast cancer, and other ailments.
Somers claims her "natural" hormone therapy is different, offering all the benefits of the old program but with none of its risks. "If you believe that, you believe in the tooth fairy," Wulf Utian, a leading endocrinologist and obstetrician at Case Western Reserve University tells Offit. In fact, bioidentical hormones could be more dangerous because they are produced in loosely regulated compounding pharmacies, which have seen a rash of problems, such as a meningitis outbreak last year linked to a compounder in New England that killed at least 48 people. The Food and Drug Administration, as well as several major groups like the American Cancer Society, the American Medical Association, and the Mayo Clinic, have said that bioidentical hormone replacement is as risky as the old hormone therapy.
But Somers didn't stop with menopause. Instead, she says her "secret elixir" of hormones and massive amounts of supplements can literally stop aging and keep you sexy and thin late into life. She has since written at least a half dozen books on the potential of hormones, promising to reveal the secrets the medical community doesn't want to you know about in books like Anti-Aging Cures: Life Changing Secrets to Reverse the Effects of Aging.
"It is the year 2041. This is me, Suzanne Somers, at ninety-four years old," she writes in the introduction of Breakthrough: Eight Steps to Wellness. She continues by writing she is healthy, happy, and strong, and begins most mornings with "wonderful sex with my 105-year-old husband."
In 2002, a group of 51 prominent medical researchers who work on aging issues joined in a letter warning that Somers was pushing snake oil. "When Somers claims to slow or reverse the aging process, she enters a world of fantasy," Offit writes, comparing her to a modern Ponce de León, who went in search of the Fountain of Youth. Unfortunately, modern medicine has not found an answer to aging yet.
Somers dismissed the criticism as essentially propaganda from drug companies, afraid of losing their monopoly on health. Indeed, many of her critics, including Offit, have worked for pharmaceutical companies at some point in their careers. But then again, she has something to sell too: Her website offers dozens of elixirs, beauty products, books, DVDs, and more. And with revenues in the billions annually, the antiaging industry is not exactly a David to Pharma's Goliath. (Offit notes that all proceeds from his book will be donated to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, where he works.)
But Sommers is hardly alone. There's a disturbing trend among wealthy, educated urbanites who are embracing a decidedly unscientific view of medicine that prioritizes gauzy notions of "natural" over actual evidence of outcomes. Celebrities have led the way. Thanks to views on vaccines pushed by people like Jenny McCarthy and Bill Maher, some private schools in Los Angeles, a hot spot of alternative medicine, now have immunization rates as low as 20 percent.
And The Journal isn't the only major media outlet to consider Somers an "expert" (she's written several columns for The Experts). NBC's Dateline devoted an entire hour in 2011 to her unconventional views on cancer, and Somers has found friendly platforms in Oprah's media empire, on The View (which now includes McCarthy) and on Dr. Oz.