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Dr. Andrew Weil: Aging and alternative medicine

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(CNN) -- Dr. Andrew Weil is arguably America's foremost practitioner of alternative medicine, or as he likes to call it, integrative medicine.

Dr. Andrew Weil

Dr. Andrew Weil focuses on integrative medicine, which works to combine alternative treatments with mainstream health care.

Weil sat down at his Arizona home with CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta to discuss his opinion on aging and other benefits of alternative medicine.

Here is an edited version of their discussion.

SANJAY GUPTA: The premises of a lot of books are: Let's turn back aging. You don't embrace that?

ANDREW WEIL: First of all, I think that's impossible. Everything in the universe ages. If this is universal law, if your goal is anti-aging, I just think you're in the wrong relationship with nature. There are people telling us that within our lifetimes we're going to be able to extend the human life span to 150, 200 [years]. I don't believe it.

SANJAY GUPTA: You've gone to some of these anti-aging conferences. What do you think about them?

ANDREW WEIL: It makes me very uneasy. These are mostly disgruntled clinicians who have gotten disillusioned with medical practice and have seen this as an easy transition into a field where they attract mostly the worried well, who are mostly affluent and willing to pay out of pocket. They're told they are part of a frontier of medical practice. Some sensible lifestyle recommendations are given, but along with that are recommendations of products [or] services for which I think there's very little scientific evidence and, in some cases, I think these are potentially harmful treatments. The one I'd single out is human growth hormone. I don't think there's any evidence human growth hormone extends life or slows aging. It may have some benefits on muscle mass and bone density but it may also have downsides in terms of increased risks of joint problems, possess increased cancer risks and cardiovascular risks.

SANJAY GUPTA: Hormones, if there weren't any downsides, would you recommend them?

ANDREW WEIL: I'm nervous about recommending hormones. Because what I know about hormones is they have very general effects. Often they're given for one specific reason and ignore the others. You see that with female hormone replacement. I generally don't recommend taking hormones unless there's a documented reason to do so.

SANJAY GUPTA: How long do you want to live?

ANDREW WEIL: Well, my father died at 80. My mother died at 93. You know I would like to live as long as practical, when I can enjoy life. I really don't want to have a long period of life when I am unable to enjoy it, unable to do things. I want to do. So, I think I'm more concerned about that than the absolute number of years I'm going to live.

SANJAY GUPTA: Are you healthy and how do you really measure if one is healthy?

ANDREW WEIL: Well, I think I am healthy by standard medical tests. I certainly correct problems that I have and I think I measure health in terms of having the capacity to do the things that meet life's demands and enjoy life and put myself in situations so that I'm able to enjoy it.

SANJAY GUPTA: Millions of people believe you. Why?

ANDREW WEIL: Well, I think because I have a good track record in terms of putting out accurate information. I think also, partly, I have good credentials. I have a clear style of writing and communication that people can understand. And I think I present balanced information. I don't uncritically accept alternative medicine or uncritically reject conventional medicine.

SANJAY GUPTA: When a patient comes to see you, what do they typically want?

ANDREW WEIL: They're asking for help and guidance.... Either they are people that get it -- that they are really responsible for their own health and they want good information about their options -- or sometimes its people who have had very bad experiences with conventional medicine. They tend to be people who are educated and curious and motivated, and it's a real pleasure to work with motivated patients.

SANJAY GUPTA: What is the difference between alternative medicine and integrative medicine? Is it the same thing?

ANDREW WEIL: No, absolutely not. Alternative medicine is all those ideas and practices that are not taught in conventional medical schools. Integrative medicine is seeing what's out there that we might bring into the mainstream. But I think it's gotten much larger goals than that. First of all, integrative medicine is trying to restore the medicine on health and healing. That means [focusing] on prevention and the body's natural capacity to repair itself. Secondly, it really insists that people are whole persons -- that we are more than just physical bodies. You've got to look at the mental, emotional and the spiritual aspects of human life to understand health and illness. And it really stresses lifestyle medicine. We've got to look at how people eat, how they rest, how they exercise, how they handle stress, all of that. And it places great emphasis on the physician-patient relationship as being central to the healing process. So those are much larger goals that aren't really captured by alternative medicine.

SANJAY GUPTA: Scientifically speaking, do you think integrative medicine is going to become less popular?

ANDREW WEIL: No, I think it's becoming more and more popular. It's clearly the medicine people want. I think high-tech medicine is becoming more and more specialized. It does deal with crisis, with life-threatening illnesses, but it's becoming so expensive. I think for the common everyday complaints that people have, integrative medicine will become the standard of care.

SANJAY GUPTA: If I could wave a wand and you were the czar of health in this country, what would our hospitals look like? What would our health care providers' systems look like?

ANDREW WEIL: I think that the whole health care system would have to be redone because right now it's not a health care system, it's a disease management system, and it doesn't work. Clearly we don't spend our health care dollars in the right way. I mean, have you seen in the statistics that we spend more per capita on health care than any other country and have worse outcomes than any other developed country? So we are doing something wrong and basically we are not spending money on prevention and education and correcting lifestyle.

SANJAY GUPTA: What's next for you?

ANDREW WEIL: Well, I want to be sure that the integrative medicine that I helped develop is on its own feet and that the program at the University of Arizona is stable. You know, I am delighted to see all these graduates out there, some that are training other physicians now. That's great. I am done writing books for a while. A lot of my concern is about my own leisure time and well being. You know, I really just want to have my own time to take care of myself.
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