Health Care

Suzanne Somers’s Bad Medicine

The actress’ phony quotes are the least concerning part of her Wall Street Journal column.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - OCTOBER 17: Actress Suzanne Somers (L) and husband Alan Hamel arrive at the Wallis Annenberg Center For The Performing Arts Gala at the Wallis Annenberg Center For The Performing Arts on October 17, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California.
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Alex Seitz Wald
Oct. 29, 2013, 8:38 a.m.

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.


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