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Anti-Aging Hormones: Do They Work?

Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could look and feel years younger, just by taking a supplement? The makers of "anti-aging" hormone supplements would like you to believe that this is possible. But before you accept their claims and open your wallet, see what medical researchers say.

With the exception of severe dietary restriction, no treatments have demonstrated the ability to slow down the rate at which humans age, or to extend lifespan. Genetic manipulation in a frequently studied worm, Caenorhabditis elegans, and in mice, has doubled and tripled their lifespan. Such experimentation in humans is not ethical and has not been tried.

Hormonal therapy, along with dozens of other pseudoscientific treatments, has been touted to increase longevity and preserve youth. To date, none of these treatments has succeeded. Some hormones, however, have improved quality of life for men and women, and have been used to treat hormone deficiencies, such as hypothyroidism or hypogonadism.

Hormones are chemicals that various glands in the body make, such as the pituitary, thyroid, adrenals, ovaries, and testes. Hormones stimulate, regulate, and control almost every biological process, including sexual reproduction, growth, metabolism, and immune function.

With aging, the production of hormones changes. Some hormone levels increase (for example parathyroid hormone), while others decrease. Certain diseases may cause hormonal deficiencies. When deficiencies occur, health care providers may prescribe artificial supplements. The FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) regulates the strength and production of hormones that are prescribed and sold as drugs, the same way it does other prescription medications. The FDA does not approve or regulate hormone supplements that are sold without a prescription (over-the-counter). The FDA says hormone-like substances sold as dietary supplements may not be as thoroughly studied. Therefore, the potential consequences of their use are not well understood. Supplements could interact with prescribed medications and cause a number of serious side effects.

Following are some hormones that your body makes. They are sold as artificial supplements, either by prescription-only, or as over-the-counter dietary supplements.

  • Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). Your adrenal glands make DHEA from cholesterol in your body. Although researchers do not fully understood what DHEA does in the body, they do know that some of it is converted into estrogen and testosterone. Production of this substance peaks in your mid-20s, and gradually declines with age in most people. What this drop means, or how it affects the aging process, if at all, is unclear. Proponents of DHEA use claim that it can slow aging, improve immunity, increase muscle and bone strength, and burn fat. There is no proof, however, that DHEA supplements do any of these things. In fact, DHEA may cause liver damage and, by increasing levels of estrogen and testosterone, may increase your risk for certain cancers. It may also increase your risk for heart disease. The FDA actually banned over-the-counter sales of DHEA in 1985. Now sold as a dietary supplement, DHEA is unregulated by the FDA.

  • Human growth hormone (hGH). Your pituitary gland makes the hormone hGH, which is important for normal development and maintenance of tissues and organs — especially in children. Researchers are still studying claims that hGH can increase your muscle strength, burn fat, and raise energy levels. Although some studies support these claims, more data are needed. Research shows that hGH may worsen diabetes, high blood pressure, and arthritis. In addition, hGH is available only by prescription and must be given by injection. This can be very costly. The FDA has approved hGH to treat children with growth problems, but not to use an anti-aging therapy.

  • Testosterone. In men, testosterone is primarily produced in the testes. It regulates sex drive (libido), helps regulate bone mass, fat distribution, muscle mass and strength, and the production of red blood cells and sperm. Women also produce small amounts of testosterone. Claims that taking this male sex hormone can boost energy, well-being, and sex drive are unproven. In high doses, testosterone can raise cholesterol and cause prostate problems. The FDA approves testosterone to relieve symptoms of hypogonadism, or underdevelopment of the reproductive organs, but not as an anti-aging therapy. In aging males, testosterone has been shown to increase sex drive, increase muscle mass, and impart a feeling of well-being. Researchers have not determined the long- term risks of testosterone use in this setting, however.     

  • Melatonin. The pineal gland in your brain produces this hormone. Light and many common medications influence the secretion of melatonin in your body. Your level of melatonin may naturally decline with age. Some makers of melatonin supplements claim that they are an anti-aging and sleep remedy. Although melatonin can help some people sleep, if it is not taken the right way, it can actually disrupt your sleep/wake cycle. Some research has raised concerns that it may cause certain blood vessels to constrict, and increase risks for cardiovascular problems in people with high blood pressure and other existing cardiovascular diseases. Sold as a dietary supplement, melatonin is unregulated.

If you take any supplements, be sure to let your doctor know. They can cause side effects and interact with medications you already take.