Falling Asleep on the Job? Growth Hormone Changes Hit Earlier Than Expected in Men

From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 15, 2000 -- Too many sleepless nights not only make you feel old, but it may actually speed up aging by throwing your hormones out of whack -- at least if you're a male.

A new study shows that aging-related changes in sleep patterns hit men at a much earlier age than had been previously thought -- by the age of 45 -- and that they coincide with striking changes in two hormones, growth hormone and cortisol, that are linked to many processes associated with aging. By 45, the researchers found, most men have entirely lost the ability to fall into the type of sleep called deep slow-wave (SW) sleep.

Many scientists are already testing whether treatment to replace growth hormone lost with age might reverse or prevent some aspects of aging, such as obesity and poor tolerance for exercise. But because of the latest findings, the study's lead author, Eve Van Cauter, PhD, tells WebMD that perhaps this replacement therapy should start in much younger men. Van Cauter, whose study was published in TheJournal of the American Medical Association, also says drugs that improve the quality of sleep might help.

"Growth-hormone replacement therapy should be started at a much earlier age than usually envisioned, i.e. around 40-45 years of age," says Van Cauter, a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. She suggests that the use of growth hormone in men would be similar to how estrogen replacement is given to women around menopause.

"We found that the percentage of sleep that is deep SW sleep decreases from 18.9% to 3.4% from early adulthood to midlife, and that this change is paralleled by a decrease in growth hormone secretion," Van Cauter tells WebMD.

In addition, Van Cauter and colleagues identified a second stage of aging-related sleep change, which begins at midlife and coincides with changes in the secretion of the stress-related hormone cortisol. "We also found that from midlife to late life, there is an increase in time awake and a decrease in REM [rapid-eye-movement stage] sleep," she says. "This is paralleled by a trend toward higher evening cortisol levels."