Real Problems with RealAge

By Christine Cupaiuolo — March 27, 2009

I’ve been assuring myself lately that I’m not really as old as my driver’s license insists. My true age — a number determined by health and lifestyle habits — must be lower. All these years without red meat has to count for something.

To confirm my wishful thinking, I planned on taking an online quiz called RealAge that promises to help you find … your real age. Despite an intimidating 150 or so questions, I was courting the payoff: Every time I look in the mirror I would see a member of Generation Y, not X.

But even the virtual fountain of youth comes with a catch. While I was counting on re-setting my internal clock (assuming the test did not inquire about Grateful Dead concert attendance), RealAge has banked on its users turning over their health information to pharmaceutical companies. These companies would of course find something that would make them feel better — and younger.

Along with offering nutrition information, advice on de-stressing and organic gardening books, RealAge “makes its money by selling better living through drugs,” writes Stephanie Clifford in this front-page New York Times story.

“Pharmaceutical companies pay RealAge to compile test results of RealAge members and send them marketing messages by e-mail,” explains Clifford. “The drug companies can even use RealAge answers to find people who show symptoms of a disease — and begin sending them messages about it even before the people have received a diagnosis from their doctors.”

More than 27 million people have taken the test; one-third, or 9 million, have signed up to be members — encouraged by RealAge spokesman and adviser Dr. Mehmet Oz, a frequent guest on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” (oh, Oprah). RealAge only collects and shares medical information from members, and it does not reveal their names, but the privacy policy does not clearly state RealAge’s close relationship with drug companies. And it’s this point that concerns consumer health advocates.

“Literally millions of people have unknowingly signed up,” Peter Lurie, the deputy director of the Health Research Group at Public Citizen, told The Times. The company, he said, “can create a group of people, and hit them up and create anxiety even though the person does not have a diagnosis.”

Members receive emails from RealAge, and advertisements are labeled as such. Yet the super-precise targeting is designed to convince any semi-worried person that the perfect solution is just one click away.

Consider this scenario:

Steve Williamson, an executive at the medical company Hologic, uses RealAge to sell a treatment called NovaSure, which removes the endometrial lining in post-childbearing, premenopausal women who have heavy periods.

With RealAge, he buys lists of women who have answered a test question by saying they have heavy menstrual bleeding, among other criteria. He chooses the ones in the 37- to 49-year-old age range, then sends them a series of e-mail messages. Several of the messages do not mention NovaSure, they just identify heavy bleeding as a problem — then, he said, the messages suggest NovaSure as a solution.

“We’re trying to get out to those customers right now and let them know that it is an option for them,” said Mr. Williamson, the vice president for sales and marketing for the gynecologic surgical products division of Hologic. “A lot of women don’t know it’s a problem, and that’s the thing. It’s not something they necessarily talk about.”

A 31-year-old former pharmaceuticals saleswoman quoted at the end of the story said she isn’t bothered knowing that drug companies have access to her answers. Patients, she said, rely too much on their doctors for answers. “As a patient and a person, you have to take your health into your own hands,” she said.

Right. But in this case, your health isn’t in your own hands. The diagnosis doesn’t come from an unbiased source, but from a company that thinks it has just what you need — whether you really do or not.

Plus: The American Psychiatric Association announced on Wednesday that it would no longer allow drug company-financed medical seminars at its annual meeting and it would discontinue meals paid for by industry money, reports The New York Times.

And here’s a topical New York Review of Books article from January: Marcia Angell discusses three books that look at the relationship between drug companies and doctors. Two of the books are on the topic of fear-mongering — convincing patients (and their doctors) that they have medical conditions that can be helped by long-term drug treatment.

3 responses to “Real Problems with RealAge”

  1. Talk about the failures of capitalism …. Just like deregulation has sunk our economy under the greed of out-of-control financial speculators — so has the deregulation of drug company advertising crippled our nation’s health. I realize the synergy in the RealAge situation is not the same as the endless Viagra ads we now have to see on TV, but the theory is the same. Somehow drug companies have made it seem that it is their right to make healthcare decisions for people they don’t even know. The magic market doesn’t work in all cases, and it’s time to limit the reach of drug companies once again.

  2. Thank you for this post!

    Oprah and Dr. Oz have been promoting, a website that asks you over 150 personal questions covering what you eat, drink, sexual history and more. The quiz promises tips on healthier living but here’s the catch: “free” membership includes targeted marketing from drug companies.

    Plus, no law prevents RealAge from selling or sharing that information with others.

    Oprah and Dr. Oz are some of the most trusted name brands in the country. SIGN THE PETITION asking Oprah to provide the full picture to her audience:

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