Growth Hormone Prompts Growing Concern
Alleged Anti-Aging Agent May Work, But More Often Backfires
Feb. 26, 2003 -- Sorry, folks, but the concept of effortlessly reversing the natural aging process with human growth hormone (HGH) injections has some serious holes -- beyond those in the skin. And the idea that you can achieve this future youth with pills is even harder to swallow.
So say leading researchers in the latest round of what is becoming a controversial healthcare topic -- using growth hormones as therapy in otherwise healthy seniors to try to stop the ravages of time. These injectable hormones, naturally produced in the pituitary gland, are designed for those with a growth hormone deficiency and whose growth has been thwarted. But in recent years, they have been administered to growing numbers of the elderly, whose hormone levels naturally decline as they reach their 60s to levels half of those in their 20s or 30s. While various studies show that injecting these substances can build muscle and bone mass and help reduce body fat, these effects come at a price.
And that worries some experts, who have mounted a recent campaign against those who use HGH products for "off-label" purposes. Earlier this month, scientists who study aging challenged claims by those in the so-called "anti-aging movement" that growth hormones can stop the ravages of time in healthy seniors. And last month, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons joined the debate, issuing a statement to its members against using these products.
This week, a leading researcher challenges their use in TheNew England Journal of Medicine. "The point needs to be made that the only people who should be taking growth hormones are those with a history of pituitary diseases -- not those who take them for anti-aging or athletics," says endocrinologist Mary Lee Vance, MD, who wrote the journal article. "They have potential to be dangerous."
Vance, a longtime growth hormone researcher, tells WebMD she wrote the article to warn doctors and their patients of these products' "misuse for commercial reasons." As many as one in three people uses growth hormones for reported anti-aging benefits -- and not the FDA-approved deficiencies resulting from disease. She is especially concerned about the use of commercially available over-the-counter pills, a combination of several amino acids that are advertised as able to produce these youthful benefits.
"These amino acids taken orally are not known to do anything except waste money," she tells WebMD. "They are not anywhere similar to the injected growth hormones. But people are misunderstanding this in their effort to find a magic bullet that will make then feel and look better."
Since 1990, when the first study on the anti-aging effects of injected HGH was published in The New England Journal of Medicine, its use for anti-aging purposes has been a hot topic of study. In that trial, often cited by anti-aging HGH proponents, improvements were noted in the 12 men studied. The study showed gains in muscle mass and bone density, but it didn't assess muscle strength. The study also showed a few negative effects such as increases in blood pressure and blood sugars.