Sympathy for the Devil 

Everything you thought you knew about steroids is wrong

Thursday, Jul 28 2005

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 Juiced that 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.

 Life begins at 59: Dr. Ron
Rothenberg seems to have
found the fountain of youth,
and it's not in Baja.
They had been saying the exact opposite for years, but Canseco’s book and the BALCO scandal combined to add new fuel to the fire and helped spark this past spring’s congressional steroid hearings — a circus act that saw everyone from Mark McGwire to Sammy Sosa look uncomfortable fudging answers to questions raised by Juiced, while Canseco seemed relaxed and in control, and shameless by comparison. One memorable moment came when former pitcher and current Republican senator from Kentucky, Jim Bunning, decried the nightmare scenario of baseball players actually getting better as they aged: "Mr. Chairman, maybe I’m old-fashioned. I remember players didn’t get any better as they got ‘older.’ We all got worse. When I played with Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Ted Williams, they didn’t put on 40 pounds and bulk up in their careers, and they didn’t hit more home runs in their late 30s as they did in their late 20s. What’s happening in baseball now is not natural, and it isn’t right."

The results of all the hysteria were new drug-testing and steroid-suspension policies in all major sports including baseball, where Commissioner Bud Selig has proposed 50-game suspensions for a first offense, and football, which increased the possible number of random off-season drug tests from two to six. There was also the re-drafting of the 1990 Steroid Control Act into the updated 2005 Steroid Control Act, and this doesn’t include the two sports-related anti-steroid bills pending in the House of Representatives.

The experts were nearly unanimous in their Canseco condemnations, but despite all of this, the reason I found myself sitting in Ron Rothenberg’s office last June was because I had started to harbor what seemed the most ridiculous of all suspicions: What if Jose Canseco was actually right?

The real reason I started to wonder this had little to do with steroids and plenty to do with another taboo class of chemicals. It is well known that back in the 1960s, when Timothy Leary snuck LSD out of Harvard and into mainstream culture, all sorts of tie-dyed hell broke loose. Our young people were at risk; the very foundation of our society was in jeopardy. Hallucinogens, we were told, were diabolical. They induced insanity. You want proof? Did not the Grateful Dead become the most successful bar band in the history of the world? Perhaps less familiar is the fact that before Captain Cosmonaut came on the scene, psychedelics had been the basis of some really promising science — so good that nearly all of modern pharmacological psychology is based on this research. LSD led us to the neurotransmitter serotonin, and serotonin jump-started the entire Prozac nation. Studies dating back almost to the 1920s hint that hallucinogens are uniquely suited to treat some of our more intractable diseases, but most of these studies have been buried so long and so deep that the core component of the Schedule One classification — where hallucinogens currently reside — states that they contain no beneficial medicinal properties.

There were, however, a few folks who knew what was what, and these folks have been stubbornly lobbying the powers that be for more than three decades. In 1990, a managerial decision to depoliticize the Food and Drug Administration forced the rest of the government to finally reopen this door. There are currently a half-dozen hallucinogen studies under way at major universities, the early results of which are seriously promising. All of which led me to wonder, if psychedelics weren’t the bogeymen they had been made out to be, maybe everything we’re hearing about steroids being the devil incarnate is wrong as well.

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