Suzanne Somers first came into our living rooms as the slightly addled sweetheart of the 1970's hit sitcom "Three's Company." Three decades later, Somers is a super saleswoman on a different stage, peddling more than 1,000 different products everywhere from the Home Shopping Network to her own Web site.
And Somers is now pitching her most dramatic promise yet: a treatment she said is the fountain of youth for us all.
The benefits of that treatment are the focus of her 16th book, a best-seller called "Ageless: The Naked Truth About Bioidentical Hormones."
"I'm sleeping. I have a libido. I'm not depressed," Somers told ABC News. "In fact, I'm happy, I'm healthy, I'm thin. I don't itch, I don't bloat, I don't have any hot flashes."
That's music to the ears of any woman who has suffered through the often debilitating effects of menopause, which come as the body's estrogen, progesterone and other hormones decrease with age. Doctors have long treated the problem with synthetic hormones.
However, Somers said the alternative -- custom-mixed bioidentical hormones -- is closer to the hormones the body makes on its own. She also said they work better, and provide miraculous anti-aging benefits to boot.
Somers herself has just turned 60, and has now been taking bioidentical hormones for a decade. She said she not only feels better as a result, but she looks great toot. "Because I have energy and because I have vitality," she said, "I think it projects a youthfulness, an agelessness that isn't a cosmetic agelessness."
Somers said her own youthfulness is not the result of plastic surgery, although she does admit to getting Botox injections. "If I was not on bioidentical hormones, I would not look like this."
Somers also criticizes traditional hormones because one, Premarin, is made from female horses' urine. She said bioidenticals, like the ones she takes, are more natural, because they use elements found in soybeans and yams. However, many experts point out that all these hormone treatments -- bioidentical or otherwise -- are lab processed. In the end, they tell ABC News, there's no significant difference.
Dr. Lauren Streicher, an obstetrician and assistant professor at Northwestern University, points out that horses' urine is just as natural as yams and soybeans, and said Somers and her followers are fooling themselves. "Just because something is natural doesn't mean it's safe. Arsenic is natural. How safe is arsenic? So, she's making leaps here. She's making assumptions that have no scientific validity."
The Cancer Question
A series of landmark studies by the Woman's Health Initiative found that standard hormone replacement therapy actually increased the risk of breast cancer, heart attack and Alzheimer's. Millions of women stopped taking the drugs cold turkey.
Somers insists in her book that the bioidentical versions of the hormones not only don't have those risks, they'll actually provide protection against those diseases. "It's the greatest protection against cancer," she said. "So, is it a cure for cancer? No. But is it a protective? Absolutely."
Not according to many medical experts. Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman, an alternative medicine expert at Georgetown University, points out that there's no scientific data to prove Somers' disease-fighting claims. "To many people's surprise, it turns out that hormones do not prevent cardiovascular disease. They do increase the risk of stroke. They increase the risk of dementia. There is reason to believe they promote cancer."
While those risks were found in studies of standard hormone therapy, according to Fugh-Berman, "there's no reason to think that these hormones are safer than conventionally used pharmaceutical hormones."
Fugh-Berman said, Somers' own breast cancer in 2001 could have been caused by the bioidenticals. Somers blames other medications, including the birth control pills she took for many years. However, she acknowledges that a second serious condition -- uterine bleeding that led to a more recent hysterectomy -- may have been related. Somers feels that condition was likely due to an incorrect dosage of bioidenticals, and said the problem has since been resolved.
'Cutting Edge Experts'?
When ABC News asked Somers if she could promise women that no harm will come to them on these drugs, she said, "I do not make them that promise. I make them this promise: I'm doing it, too." She said she's so happy with the quality of life that she experiences on bioidenticals that her health scare was "not enough to make me stop taking these."
Somers bases her commitment to bioidentical hormones on the 16 doctors she hypes on the cover of her book. She calls them "cutting edge" experts, but ABC News found that most have published no original hormone research. And three of them turned out to have had serious professional disciplinary problems, including one whose medical license is under probation for five years for illegally selling drugs over the Internet.
Another expert in Somers' book, T.S. Wiley, is not a doctor, but a passionate layperson and published author with slim scientific credentials. She told us she attended a B.A. program in anthropology at Webster University in St. Louis, and displays a commencement picture on her Web site. However, the university told ABC News that Wiley received only a blank piece of paper that day, and never received a degree.
Turning the Clock Back to 20
Still, Wiley said up to 10,000 women gratefully follow the bioidentical program she devised, with almost no side effects. It's designed to mimic the level of hormones in a woman's body fromwhen she was an energetic 20 years old.
When we asked Wiley if it was a good idea to give 60-year-old women such high hormone doses, Wiley replied that "We don't know. [It] has to be studied."
As for the question of whether or not this is the safe thing to do, Wiley added, "I know that women in their 20s are generally, overall, healthier."
Somers' book also features Dr. Larry Webster, a former emergency room physician whose current anti-aging practice has mushroomed with the publication of "Ageless."
Webster also believes that bioidentical hormones are safer for women's bodies than the standard synthetic hormones but admits that long-term safety studies need to be done to prove that.
Webster told ABC News that he's treated his own patients with bioidenticals for ten years and has not seen any side effects. However, when asked if he was keeping records of all those patients to determine if any of them eventually had any symptoms of cancer or heart disease, Webster admitted that he didn't track them all to find out.
Who Lives the Longest?
We also asked Webster about a questionable fact in Somers' book that she attributes to him. She quotes him as saying that the people of Gambia live in an oasis of good health compared with the United States, and that Gambians "live longer than any other population on Earth." Yet when we did some checking, we found that the life expectancy of the people in Gambia is just 56 years -- more than 20 years less than the life expectancy in the United States.
Webster told us, "That's a misprint in the book. Suzanne misinterpreted me. This was Georgia, the Republic of Georgia, which is north of Turkey." He said that the Georgians, not the Gambians, are the ones who "live longer than anybody else."
It turns out that's not quite true, either. The Georgians do live long lives, but still fall several years short of Americans and those in many other countries.
Somers' health claims have been attacked by everyone from the mainstream American Medical Association to the anti-establishment consumer group Public Citizen, yet she insists her critics are either paid off by the pharmaceutical companies, or just ignorant. For the record, neither of the experts we interviewed takes money from hormone makers.
'A Roll of the Dice'
The question now is, where do women turn? First, synthetic hormones were touted as the solution, then largely discredited. Now comes the bioidentical crowd, promising their creams and pills will bring new relief against the march of time.
ABC News asked Somers how she would feel if it turns out, in the long run, that she was wrong. She replied, "How will you feel if, in five years, I'm right and these doctors are right, and I'm living this incredible life at 65, at 70, at 75?"
As for the prospect that people who follow her lead could eventually end up with health problems, she told us, "I do not force anybody to do anything. If I'm wrong, I'll be in the same boat as everybody else. I don't think I'm wrong. At some point in life, it is a roll of the dice."
If you're willing to gamble, Somers is working on yet another book about bioidenticals, this time for men -- selling her promise of perennial youth to a whole new market.