DEAR MAYO CLINIC: My sister goes to an anti-aging specialist who recommends she take HGH to slow aging. Does this work? Is it safe?
ANSWER: Human growth hormone, or HGH, in a synthetic form can be safe and useful as a treatment for some medical conditions. However, it is not intended to be used as an anti-aging medication. No evidence exists that shows HGH works against the effects of aging. In fact, taking HGH may be dangerous for some people.
Even though there's less of it in adults, HGH is still important as we age. It plays a key role in regulating our body composition, including the amount of muscle mass vs. fat mass we have. HGH also helps to sustain healthy bone density and aids in metabolism. Research suggests it may play a role in maintaining our cognitive abilities, too.
Synthetic growth hormone, which is given by injection and available only with a prescription, is used most often in children whose bodies don't make enough HGH. These children usually have some kind of pituitary disease that does not allow their pituitary gland to produce adequate amounts of HGH. Receiving synthetic growth hormone can help them reach a normal adult height. Children with short stature from chromosomal abnormalities or kidney failure also may benefit from growth hormone therapy.
HGH may be used in adults who have pituitary disease and are deficient in growth hormone. In addition, the hormone has been shown to be useful in some people with short bowel syndrome and AIDS who've lost a significant amount of muscle mass from the disease. Although safe and effective for people who have one of these medical conditions, synthetic growth hormone is not recommended for anyone who has normal levels of HGH.
In healthy people, taking growth hormone can cause joint and muscle pain, as well as swelling in the arms and legs. It can also lead to carpal tunnel syndrome and can contribute to other health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Research suggests HGH can cause tumors to develop or grow, making it potentially quite dangerous for anyone who has cancer or who's been diagnosed with cancer in the past.
There is no scientific evidence that shows taking synthetic growth hormone slows aging. Be very wary of people who claim otherwise. Some websites sell a pill form of human growth hormone and claim that it produces results similar to the injected form of the drug. Sometimes these dietary supplements are called human growth hormone releasers. Avoid them. There's no proof that these claims are true. Likewise, there's no proof that homeopathic remedies claiming to contain human growth hormone work.
If you want to feel and look your best as you age, it's much better to make healthy lifestyle choices than to turn to so-called anti-aging "solutions," such as HGH. Eat a healthy diet. Exercise regularly. Don't smoke. Get medical care for any chronic health problems. If you have specific concerns about aging, talk to your doctor about proven ways you can improve your health. -- Todd Nippoldt, M.D., Endocrinology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.
(Medical Edge from Mayo Clinic is an educational resource and doesn't replace regular medical care. E-mail a question to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit http://www.mayoclinic.org.)