Pills, Patches, and Shots: Can Hormones Prevent Aging?

We could not survive without hormones. They are among the most common and vital chemical messengers in the body. From head to toe, each moment of life, they signal cells to perform tasks that range from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Among their many roles, hormones help regulate body temperature, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels. In childhood, they help us "grow up." In the teen years, they are the driving force behind puberty. But what influence, if any, the natural decline in some hormones has on the aging process in middle and late life is unclear. Although a few proponents are convinced that hormone supplements can favorably alter the aging process and have advocated their widespread use, the scientific evidence supporting this premise is, for the most part, sketchy.

For more than a decade, the National Institute on Aging (NIA), a component of the Federal Government's National Institutes of Health, has supported and conducted studies of replenishing hormones to find out if they may help reduce frailty and improve function in older people. These studies have focused on hormones known to decline as we grow older:

The results from these NIA-sponsored studies and other research projects likely will improve our understanding of the pros and cons of hormone supplementation. Until the results of these studies are compiled, analyzed, and a consensus among scientists is reached, recommendations to use supplemental hormones and hormone-like molecules to influence the aging process and health problems associated with aging should be viewed with skepticism. It is not yet known, for instance, how much is too much or too little, and when or whether hormone supplements should be taken at all. This fact sheet provides information about what is known so far and what researchers are doing to find out more.

What Is A Hormone?

Hormones are powerful chemicals that help keep our bodies working normally. The term hormone is derived from the Greek word, hormo, which means to set in motion. And that's precisely what hormones do in the body. They stimulate, regulate, and control the function of various tissues and organs. Made by specialized groups of cells within structures called glands, hormones are involved in almost every biological process including sexual reproduction, growth, metabolism, and immune function. These glands, including the pituitary, thyroid, adrenals, ovaries and testes, release various hormones into the body as needed.

Levels of some hormones like parathyroid hormone, which helps regulate calcium levels in the blood and bone, actually increase as a normal part of aging and may be involved in bone loss leading to osteoporosis. But the levels of a number of other hormones, such as testosterone in men and estrogen in women, tend to decrease over time. In other cases, the body may fail to make enough of a hormone due to diseases and disorders that can develop at any age. When this occurs, hormone supplements-pills, shots, topical (rub-on) gels, and medicated skin patches-may be prescribed.

Unproven claims that taking hormone supplements can make people feel young again or that they can slow or prevent aging have been "hot" news items for several years. The reality is that no one has yet shown that supplements of these hormones prevent frailty or add years to people's lives. And while some supplements provide health benefits for people with genuine deficiencies of certain hormones, they also can cause harmful side effects. In any case, people who have diagnosed hormone deficiencies should take them only under a doctor's supervision. Remember: More is not necessarily better. The right balance of hormones helps us stay healthy, but the wrong amount might be damaging.

Heed The Warnings

The NIA recognizes that some hormone-like products are available over the counter and can be used without consulting a physician. The Institute discourages individuals from self-medicating with these products for a number of reasons. First, these products are marketed as "dietary supplements", and therefore are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the same way as drugs. This is an important distinction because the requirements for marketing a dietary supplement are very different from those that apply to hormones marketed as drugs. Unlike drug manufacturers, a firm selling dietary supplements doesn't need FDA approval of its products and doesn't need to prove that its products are safe and effective before marketing. Also, there is no specific guarantee that the substance in the container is authentic or that the indicated dosage is accurate. Because of these differing standards, hormone-like substances that are sold as dietary supplements may not be as thoroughly studied as drug products, and, therefore, the potential consequences of their use are not well understood or defined. In addition, these over-the-counter products may interfere with other medications you are taking.