As the baby-boomer population ages, the obsession with youth has led to the explosion of the anti-aging market. Human growth hormone (HGH) replacement therapy is pervasive in this market, and is dubbed as the proverbial “fountain of youth.” Its virtues are hyped all over the Internet as there is a lot of money to be made by pharmaceutical companies who sell it, but studies show serious side effects are associated with short and long term use.
HGH therapy began in the 1950s as a way to treat children with growth deficiencies. HGH is a naturally occurring hormone produced in the pituitary gland, particularly associated with increase in height. Its usage has become popularized by body builders because it has shown to increase lean muscle mass and decrease body fat, but is increasingly being used by the mainstream aging population for the same reasons.
It is sold in several forms, with injectible HGH considered to be the most effective, while the homeopathic form (through nasal spray delivery) is touted as being the safest. It is regulated by law, and the Food and Drug Administration has not approved its legal use for anything other than the treatment of growth deficiency unrelated to aging.
Several leading medical journals, such as the Journal for the American Medical Association (JAMA) and Lancet have published studies linking pharmaceutical HGH replacement therapy with several serious health problems. While they stress the lack of knowledge due to the lack of enough long term studies, the known side effects are serious enough to warrant second thoughts for HGH’s usage.
One major study conducted by the National Institute on Aging Intramural Research Program in conjunction with Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and published in JAMA in 2002, produced alarming results. The 26 week study, designed to test the effect of HGH in combination with sex steroids, included 57 healthy men and 74 healthy women, ages 65 to 88. Some were given HGH alone, HGH combined with sex hormones, sex hormones alone, and placebos.
Overall, the men and women who were given HGH showed increased muscle mass and decreased body fat, and older men who were treated with HGH and testosterone demonstrated increased cardiovascular endurance. However, neither group showed any appreciable increase in strength.
The Mayo Clinic reports numerous short and long term side effects from synthetic HGH, and this is verified by the NIA/Johns Hopkins study. The study shows that up to 40 percent of the participants experienced adverse effects, with the largest percentage occurring in those who used HGH. In general, men experienced more severe and frequent side effects than women.
Side effects included joint pain, swelling, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Some men developed glucose intolerance (a precursor to diabetes), or full blown diabetes. None of the women developed diabetes or glucose intolerance, but showed more frequent occurrence of edema (swelling). All symptoms abated within two to six weeks after discontinuing the treatment. The Mayo Clinic also cites the enlargement of breast tissue (gynecomastia) in men as a known side effect, as well as muscle pain, in addition to joint pain.
In a 2002 study by the U.K. medical journal, Lancet, HGH was also linked to significantly elevated risk for certain types of cancer, including Hodgkin’s disease and colorectal cancer.
The Mayo Clinic is quick to point out that “there’s little evidence to suggest human growth hormone can help otherwise healthy adults regain youth and vitality,” and that the only people who should be taking it are people with true growth hormone deficiencies.
Stanley Slater, M.D., deputy director of the NIA’s Geriatrics and Clinical Gerontology Program, said of the Johns Hopkins study that “This study makes the important point that because adverse effects were common in response to growth hormone administration, individuals, particularly those who are elderly, should not use HGH outside of controlled investigational studies. Growth hormone has not yet been demonstrated to be of clinical utility as an anti-aging intervention.”