Off-label use of human growth hormones (HGHs) as an anti-aging therapy has skyrocketed in the past few years, with the industry set to double its market by 2025. However, many endocrinologists are worried because they believe such therapies should be reserved for those with certain deficiencies. Meanwhile, the rest of the population might be risking their health.
Human growth hormone is a peptide hormone that stimulates growth, cell reproduction, and cell regeneration in humans and other animals. It’s a tiny protein secreted by the pituitary gland, a pea-sized organ located near your brain, which circulates through the bloodstream where it serves the functions mentioned above.
Scientists have known about this hormone since the 1920s, but it wasn’t really employed in therapy until the 1960s — mostly because acquiring it was very difficult. The only source was humans, and gathering it from cadavers didn’t really seem like an attractive proposition. However, now it is produced synthetically and is easily available.
Research has also shown that production rises during childhood, peaks during puberty, and declines from middle age onward. It’s still used as a drug for children who suffer from an HGH deficiency (as well as some adults who suffer from this).
Adults who are GH-deficient tend to get larger muscles, have more energy, and improved exercise capacity from replacement therapy. They also experience increased stamina, protection from fractures, and a reduced risk of heart disease.
- Turner’s syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects a girl’s development
- Prader-Willi syndrome, an uncommon genetic disorder causing poor muscle tone, low levels of sex hormones, and a constant feeling of hunger
- Chronic kidney disease
- HGH deficiency or insufficiency
- Children born small for gestational age
There are some significant side effects, though. Up to 30% of patients experience side effects that include fluid retention, joint and muscle pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and high blood sugar levels.
Searching for the fountain of youth
Patients with real HGH deficiencies can experience significant metabolic and psychological problems. For them, treatment with HGH can lead to important improvements, leading to reduced visceral and trunk fat mass, and increased lean body mass, skeletal muscle mass, and aerobic capacity.
These health outcomes are extremely appealing for older adults, who are exposed to marketing that suggests HGH therapy has rejuvenating properties.
However, endocrinologists caution that older adults face serious risks when doing so.
“Growth hormone definitely is lipolytic and causes fat weight loss, and so that is very enticing to an internist managing a 70-year-old individual who has the resources to pay for growth hormone,” Shlomo Melmed, professor of medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, told Endocrine Today. “What they don’t know is the literature. … A lack of growth hormone is advantageous to aging and is advantageous to protection against cancer and diabetes. These clinicians … may, in fact, be negating any potential benefits of the physiologic drop of growth hormone level that occurs during aging.”
Although weight gain, increased fat mass, difficulty concentrating and memory impairment are features of HGH deficiency, they’re also manifestations of aging. In other words, these are natural developments, and interfering with HGH therapy might cascade into undesirable side effects.
“Most studies do not actually support the concept that GH administration for elderly individuals, who are secreting relatively low GH, can actually improve functional performance, and furthermore, the potential for toxicity is higher among the elderly population. However, an increase in the illegal use of GH for aging has been exponential in the U.S, said Maria Fleseriu, professor of neurological surgery and professor of medicine in the division of endocrinology, diabetes and clinical nutrition in the School of Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University.
Elderly individuals looking to improve their health should instead turn their attention to improving their lifestyles by eating a balanced diet, exercising, and not stressing too hard.