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Older Adults : Using Medications

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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 been clearly demonstrated to decrease the rate that humans age or extend lifespan. Genetic manipulation in a frequently studied worm, Caenorhabditis elegans, and in mice have doubled and tripled their lifespan, but such experimentation in humans is not ethical and has not been tried.

Hormonal therapy along with dozens of other pseudoscientific treatments have been touted to increase longevity and preserve youth. To date, none have 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 made by various glands in the body such as the pituitary, thyroid, adrenals, ovaries and testes. They stimulate, regulate, and control almost every biological process including sexual reproduction, growth, metabolism, and immune function.

With aging, the production of hormones changes. Some hormones levels increase (for example parathyroid hormone), while others decrease. Certain diseases may cause hormonal deficiencies. When deficiencies occur, artificial supplements may be prescribed. The strength and production of hormones that are prescribed and sold as drugs are regulated by the FDA in the same way as other prescription medications. Hormone supplements that are sold without a prescription (over-the-counter) are not approved or regulated by the FDA. The FDA says hormone-like substances that are sold as dietary supplements may not be as thoroughly studied, and, 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.

  • Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). DHEA is made in the body from cholesterol by the adrenal glands. Although it is not fully understood what DHEA does in the body, it is known that some of it is converted into estrogen and testosterone. Production of this substance peaks in the 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, it may increase the 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). The hormone hGH is made by the pituitary gland and is important for normal development and maintenance of tissues and organs; especially in children. Claims that hGH can increase muscle strength, burn fat and raise energy levels are still being researched. Although some studies have supported these claims, more data are needed. Research has shown that hGH may worsen diabetes, high blood pressure and arthritis. In addition, hGH is available only by prescription and must be given by injection, which can be very costly. hGH is approved by the FDA to treat children with growth problems, but not as 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. Testosterone is approved by the FDA 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. The long term risks of testosterone use in this setting have not been fully determined, however.   

  • Melatonin. This hormone is made in the brain by the pineal gland. The secretion of melatonin in the body is influenced by light and many common medications. The 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, melatonin can actually disrupt the 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.