By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The road to the future is paved in blood — my own. Not too long ago, a nurse went a little crazy with my hemoglobin. Somewhere in the middle of the second vial, I got too dizzy to pay attention, but it felt like she took pints, quarts, gallons, whatever comes after gallons, gleefully mining my veins for any secrets they might conceal. The blood was sent to a medical lab that ran a battery of tests and then shipped the results to a doctor named Ron Rothenberg, with whom I would meet to discuss what portents it held. Besides the blood work, getting in to see Rothenberg also required signing a 10-page waiver, filling out a 20-page health-and-lifestyle questionnaire and being profoundly willing to look my medical future square in the eye.
Rothenberg, himself, is a medium-size guy, smooth-skinned and strong-shouldered, with sandy-brown hair, dark eyes and darker eyebrows. He looks a little like a Jewish version of a Latin American soap star, which is to say he looks nothing like his 59 years. He is open about his age, just as he is open about the fact that he feels 25, but unlike most who brag of their youthful virility, because of the way Ron Rothenberg now makes a living, his youthful virility is perhaps no idle claim. Rothenberg runs the California Health Span Institute in Encinitas, California, and to the limited number of people who know of him and understand the world of anti-aging medicine, he is considered something of a pioneer — which is saying a lot when you consider that the Western tradition of anti-aging medicine dates back at least to the 1500s, when someone named Juan Ponce de León accidentally discovered Florida while looking for the Fountain of Youth.
Rothenberg was not trained in anti-aging medicine, because, at the time he was trained, anti-aging medicine was not something one got trained in. Instead, he graduated from Columbia Medical School in 1970, moved out West, learned to surf, and completed his residency in 1975 at Los Angeles County–USC Medical Center. He received an academic appointment to teach emergency medicine at the University of California, San Diego, in ’77, and became a full professor in ’89. Throughout, Rothenberg has kept on surfing. Back in 1975, he was one of the first Americans to venture to Bali to try his hand at those now-legendary Indonesian waves. He has a house down deep in Baja, right in front of one of the better breaks in Mexico. Surfboards hang on his office walls, as do pictures of him riding overhead waves with a charging stance akin to that of Greg “The Bull” Noll. These pictures were taken last year, when Rothenberg was 58, but it was a few years before this, around the time he turned 50, when his interest in surfing pointed him toward the then-emerging field of anti-aging medicine.
“Around the half-century mark, I saw all these changes in my body,” recalls Rothenberg. “I felt fuzzy. I felt like I was losing my edge. My energy was low, my libido was low, things didn’t look as good as they used to. When I went surfing, I would get winded on the paddle-out. I wasn’t used to getting winded on the paddle-out. I read a Newsweek article about the anti-aging properties of DHEA and started to wonder if there was something I could do about the way I was feeling and the changes my body was undergoing.”
Rothenberg got in touch with the nascent American Academy of Anti-Aging and began re-educating himself. “Most doctors are frozen in time,” he says. “They stop learning when they get out of medical school. Unfortunately, one of the first things they teach you in medical school is that nearly half of what you’ll learn there is wrong — only no one is exactly certain which half.” One of the main things he learned in medical school was that time marches on and aging is an unstoppable process. For Rothenberg, this turned out to be part of the half that was wrong.
How wrong is still a matter of debate, but few disagree that the version of anti-aging medicine as practiced by Rothenberg and his cohorts represents one of the more radical departures in Western medical thought to surface in centuries. “Traditional medicine is reactive, disease-based medicine,” says Dr. Robert Goldman, chairman of the American Academy for Anti-Aging Medicine. “Anti-aging medicine is the opposite. It’s about finding the problem and fixing the problem before it occurs. If sports medicine is about optimizing the body for maximum athletic performance, then anti-aging medicine is about optimizing the body for living in general.”
Goldman believes that anti-aging is the future of medicine. And Ron Rothenberg was one of the first to venture into that future. He became the 10th doctor in the world to become board-certified in anti-aging medicine and among the earliest to hang a shingle and open his doors to the public, in 1998. He had been self-medicating for a little while before that, and his earliest patients were fellow doctors who noticed that Rothenberg seemed younger, faster, stronger and who wanted some of that good magic for themselves. His prescription for them was very similar to his prescription for me — and this is where the road to the future takes a sharp left turn — because the basis for both prescriptions was hormones. Though, as Rothenberg and others like to point out, “There’s a joke in the medical community: When someone has something nice to say about the work we’re doing, they use the word hormones. When they don’t have something nice to say, they like to call them steroids.”
My journey to see Dr. Rothenberg did not begin with an inquiry into anti-aging medicine, but it did begin with steroids. It began with a onetime baseball player named Jose Canseco and the stir caused by his memoir of “wild times, rampant ’roids, smash hits and how baseball got big.” It was in Juicedthat Canseco claimed to be the man who popularized steroids in baseball. It was also in Juiced that Canseco defined road beef as “any girl you met on the road and had sex with.” For this reason and others, there’s very little in the book that gives one faith in its author’s opinions. He repeatedly argues that steroids are the wonder drug of tomorrow, but nowhere in the book is a medical paper cited or a scientist quoted. He promises that someday soon “everyone will be doing it. Steroid use will be more common than Botox is now. Every baseball player and pro athlete will be using at least low levels of steroids. As a result, baseball and other sports will be more exciting and entertaining. Human life will be improved, too. We will live longer and better. And maybe we’ll love longer and better, too.” As it worked out, these rosy prognostications came around the time that pundits and politicians were making plenty of hay saying the exact opposite.