In a culture that seems to value youth, growing older is often cause for apprehension, with fears of declining health and reduced capabilities. So it’s no surprise to me that anti-aging remedies are flying off the shelves. One heavily hyped product is human growth hormone (hGH). Advertisements promise that injections of synthetic hGH or use of supplemental “hGH releasers” can restore this naturally occurring pituitary hormone to its youthful levels in your body and keep you looking younger. But will getting more hGH really turn back the clock?
Human growth hormone plays an essential role in the growth and repair of organs and tissues. Because levels of natural hGH peak at age twenty and dwindle with age, and because people with a diagnosed hGH deficiency appear to age faster, researchers have long wondered about the link between hGH and aging. Popular buzz escalated when a highly publicized 1990 clinical trial found that healthy older men receiving regular injections of hGH reported an increase in muscle bulk, a decrease in fat, and a small increase in spinal bone density.
Less attention was paid to a 1996 trial finding no improvement in actual strength, endurance, or mental ability in men receiving hGH injections, and to the fact that the men participating in the second trial experienced such side effects as joint pain, edema, and breast tenderness. People who can afford the $12,000 to $15,000 annual cost of hGH shots at anti-aging clinics are apparently not put off by these side effects, nor by the fact that there are no long-term studies on the effects of hGH in healthy people.
Stanley Slater, M.D., who oversees hGH studies at the National Institute on Aging (NIA), notes the lack of proven health benefits and the frightening array of potential risks. Preliminary data from one-month to one-year-long NIA studies shows some positive results—a little less fat, a little more lean body mass—in healthy older adults getting hGH shots. But Slater cautions that while these changes are associated with a healthy and youthful appearance, they’re not necessarily signs of improved health. Given that the long-term effects of taking hGH possibly include an increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, the question arises: Would you rather look a little younger or live longer?
My bottom line
Like Slater, I don’t recommend hGH shots or any other hGH product. I think it’s possible that levels of hormones such as hGH naturally decline as we age because they are also tumor promoters, and with age we become more vulnerable to such effects. As for the amino-acid-based “hGH releasers” sold at health-food stores and over the Internet, they may be cheaper ($40 to $120 a month) than hGH injections, but they don’t contain hGH, and there’s no evidence that they actually raise hGH levels. Even if they did, the question remains: Is raising hGH levels in older people necessarily a good thing? At this point, I think the risks are too great.
Reprinted with permission from Dr. Andrew Weil’s Self Healing newsletter. Subscriptions: (800) 523-3296. ©1999 by Thorne Communications, Inc.