The Media and Anti-Aging Medicine: Witch-Hunt, Uncritical Reporting or Fourth Estate?


In this paper, which brings together aging research and media research, we will contribute to the mapping of the complicated cartography of anti-aging by analyzing the press coverage of anti-aging medicine. The mass media decisively shape societal impacts of the expert scientific discourse on anti-aging. While sensitivity towards the heterogeneity of the field of anti-aging is increasing to some degree in the social-gerontological discussion, the role of the media in transmitting the various anti-aging messages to the general public has so far not been systematically scrutinized. Current opinions on the press coverage of anti-aging medicine range from proponents’ complaints of a media witch-hunt against them to opponents’ reproaches about uncritical reporting of this complex topic. This paper discusses whether the media act accordingly to the ideal of the fourth estate, controlling the increased power of science in the 20th century. Our areas of investigation are two Western countries: the USA and Germany. Both countries have experienced an apparent increase in the average age of their populations, which has led to increasingly vigorous public debate since the late 20th century. The subjects of our study are three organizations that represent different approaches to anti-aging medicine: the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, the German Society of Anti-Aging Medicine, and the Methuselah Foundation. The article discusses the programs, goals, and media strategies of these organizations and compares them with the anti-aging messages that actually make their way to the reader in the media “interdiscourse.” The article asks whether transatlantic learning processes within the anti-aging medicine movement as well as in the media can be identified. The paper’s methods and sources are those of contemporary history and ethnography. The three approaches to anti-aging medicine are drawn from publications of spokespersons from the three presented anti-aging medicine organizations and from participant observation of anti-aging medicine conferences in Germany and Europe during the period from 2005 to 2008. The media analysis is based on the study of about 300 articles that appeared between 1990 and 2009 in US and German dailies and weeklies such as Newsweek, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, and Die Welt. Our analysis shows that, against the backdrop of pessimistic demographic apprehensions, the leitmotiv of both nations’ medical journalism between 1990 and 2009 was overwhelmingly pro anti-aging medicine. It is criticized that medical journalism on anti-aging medicine refrains from own investigations on potential risks. Scrutinizing activities of the media in terms of a fourth estate require stimulation from science itself. Hence, we argue for sensitization of medical journalism regarding ageism.

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  1. 1.

    Apart from the themed issue at hand see, e.g., the themed issue of the Journal of Aging Studies, volume 22, issue 2 (Vincent et al. 2009).

  2. 2.

    Cf. the article by Petersen and Seear in this issue.

  3. 3.

    The definition and usage of the term “popularization” are currently the subject of discussion in research on science journalism (Schirmacher 2008). In our analysis, we understand “popularizing” as rendering the very detailed, specific, and often jargon-laden information produced by scientists into a generally understandable and entertaining form that is accessible for the average media consumer.

  4. 4.

    A second, methodological reason for choosing these periodicals was that these newspapers and magazines offer access to their online archives, allowing full-text searches for terms crucial to our analysis. On several aspects of the topic anti-aging medicine we included The Washington Post, USA Today, Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), and Stern in the analysis.

  5. 5.

    See Accessed 10 September 2009.

  6. 6.

    See Accessed 10 September (2009). This is 0.38% of the 4,460,000 health diagnosing and treating practitioners in the USA in 2006 (source: National Employment Matrix, Bureau of Labor Statistics).

  7. 7.

    For other articles on the “benefits” of hormone therapy, sometimes combined with warnings against current risks, see Dorfman (1990), Beck (1993), and Brody (1997).

  8. 8.

    Other printed media mentioned A4M and its founders only rarely and as one of many facets of the trend towards anti-aging methods (cf. Samuelson 2003).

  9. 9.

    See Siwolop (2001), Kolata (2002), and Wilson (2007).

  10. 10.

    See Brock (2002), Kolata (2002), and Wilson (2007).

  11. 11.

    See Wilson (2007); cf. Ruibal (2007).

  12. 12.

    Members of the “war on anti-aging” can be found on the website: Accessed 10 September 2009. Cf. Perls (2004).

  13. 13.

    Cf. for the successful boundary work against A4M: The New York Times: Siwolop (2001) (quoted experts who criticized A4M and the inaccurate use of hormone replacement were, among others, Christopher B. Heward and Huber R. Warner); Brock (2002) (S. Jay Olshansky, S. Mitchell Harman, and Thomas T. Perls); Kolata (2002) (Harman and Warner); Time Magazine: Kluger, Time, 21 January 2002 (Butler, Leonard Hayflick); The San Francisco Chronicle: Davidson (2001); (Hayflick, Thomas E. Johnson, Olshansky, and Bruce A. Carnes); Torassa (2002) (Harman).

  14. 14.

    The New York Times: Pollack (2003) (quoted expert: Michael D. West); DeSimone (2006) (Robert N. Butler); Reynolds (2006) (Perls); Mason (2006) (Olshansky); Wilson (2007) (L. Stephen Coles); Wade (2008) (Warner); Time Magazine: Corliss et al. (2004) (Perls); Weil (2005) (Andrew Weil); Ettleman (2006) (Olshansky); Newsweek: Underwood (2008) (Perls); The San Francisco Chronicle: Tumiel (2003) (Jan Vijg, Eric T. Juengst); Russell (2003) (Olshansky).

  15. 15.

    Reciprocally, the US press coverage hardly ever took a look across the Atlantic, if at all then only to project its own dim demographic prospects: Germany was presented as the first society in human history with more elderly people than children. A “new breed of centenarians” in Europe would cause serious intergenerational conflict. Analyzers from Germany were cited accusing the elderly of producing a timid and angst-ridden society (Landler 2004; Doyle 2004). The transatlantic observation served as an argument to press ahead with anti-aging medicine in the USA.

  16. 16.

    Cf. for the relevance of metaphors in science journalism: Christidou et al. (2004).

  17. 17.

    Among the cited researchers were Michael Fossel, Leonard Hayflick, Jay Olshansky. Thomas Perls, Michael Rose, Jerry Shay, David Sinclair, Richard Weindruch, Woodring Wright, and Roy Walford.

  18. 18.

    Der Spiegel (1990), Wagner (1997), Borgeest (1991), von Lutterotti, FAZ, 8 February (2006), Bartholomäus et al. (2007).

  19. 19.

    See Mayer-Wolk (2002) and Bartens (2008).

  20. 20.

    See Traufetter (2001), Miketta (2001), Mayer-Wolk (2002), Goy (2002), Blech (2003: 117), Hoppe (2004: 104), Blawat (2006), and Bartens (2008).

  21. 21.

    In German, named more cautiously Deutsche Gesellschaft für Prävention und Anti-Aging-Medizin, see Accessed 29 January 2009.

  22. 22.

    See Accessed 10 September 2009.

  23. 23.

    See: Accessed 10 September 2009.

  24. 24.

    See Accessed 10 September 2009.

  25. 25.

    See Bördlein (2000), Bartholomäus et al. (2007), and Eberle (2008).

  26. 26.

    See Accessed 10 September 2009.

  27. 27.

    See Accessed 10 September 2009.

  28. 28.

    The “seven deadly things” are cell loss and cell atrophy, junk outside cells, cross-links outside cells, death-resistant cells, mitochondrial mutations, junk inside cells, and nuclear [epi]mutations (de Grey and Rea 2007: 43).

  29. 29.

    E.g. the “SENS Challenge”, a US $20,000 prize announced in 2005 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s magazine Technology Review and cofunded by the Methuselah Foundation for molecular biologists to demonstrate if de Grey’s proposals were science or fantasy (Pontin 2006).

  30. 30.

    One of the rather few examples for concerns on the abolition of death is Gibbs (2006).

  31. 31.

    See Muggenthaler (2004) and Wegner (2005).

  32. 32.

    See Müller-Jung (2004), Bredow (2005), and Schulte von Drach (2007).



American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine




Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung


German Society of Anti-Aging Medicine (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Prävention und Anti-Aging-Medizin)


Human growth hormone




The New York Times


Aubrey de Grey’s research program “Strategies for Engineering Negligible Senesence”


The San Francisco Chronicle


Süddeutsche Zeitung


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Spindler, M., Streubel, C. The Media and Anti-Aging Medicine: Witch-Hunt, Uncritical Reporting or Fourth Estate?. Medicine Studies 1, 229 (2009).

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  • Anti-aging medicine
  • Mass media
  • Press coverage
  • American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine
  • Methuselah Foundation
  • German Society of Anti-Aging Medicine
  • Transatlantic learning processes