Aging: Can Hormones Prevent Aging? (cont.)

Growth Hormone

Human growth hormone (hGH) is made by the pituitary gland, a pea-sized structure located at the base of the brain, and is important for normal development and maintenance of tissues and organs. It is especially important for normal growth in children.

Studies have shown that injections of supplemental hGH are helpful to certain people. Sometimes children are unusually short because their bodies do not make enough hGH. When they receive injections of this hormone, their growth improves. Young adults who have no pituitary gland (because of surgery for a pituitary tumor, for example) cannot make the hormone and they become obese. When they are given hGH, they lose weight.

Like some other hormones, blood levels of hGH often decrease as people age, but this may not necessarily be bad. At least one epidemiological study, for instance, suggests that people who have high levels of hGH are more apt to die at younger ages than those with lower levels of the hormone. Studies of animals with genetic disorders that suppress growth hormone production and secretion also suggest that reduced growth hormone secretion may prolong survival in some species.

Although there is no conclusive evidence that hGH can prevent aging, some people spend a great deal of money on supplements. These supplements are claimed, by some, to increase muscle, decrease fat, and to boost an individual's stamina and sense of well being. Shots-the only proven way of getting the body to make use of supplemental hGH-can cost more than $15,000 a year. They are available only by prescription and should be given by a doctor. In any case, people in search of the "fountain of youth" may have a hard time finding a doctor who will give them shots of hGH because so little is known about the long-term risks and benefits of this controversial treatment. Some dietary supplements, known as human growth hormone releasers, are marketed as a low-cost alternative to hGH shots. But claims that these over-the-counter products retard the aging process are unsubstantiated.

While some studies have shown that supplemental hGH does increase muscle mass, it seems to have little impact on muscle strength or function. Scientists are continuing to study hGH, but they are watching their study participants very carefully because side effects can be serious in older adults. These include diabetes and pooling of fluid in the skin and other tissues, which may lead to high blood pressure and heart failure. Joint pain and carpal tunnel syndrome also may occur. A recent report that treatment of children with human pituitary growth hormone increases the risk of subsequent cancer is a cause for concern. Further studies on this issue are needed. Whether older people treated with hGH for extended periods have an increased risk of cancer is unknown.