Growth hormone fuels childhood growth and helps maintain tissues and organs throughout life. It’s produced by the pea-sized pituitary gland — located at the base of the brain. Beginning in middle age, however, the pituitary gland slowly reduces the amount of growth hormone it produces. This natural slowdown has triggered an interest in using synthetic human growth hormone (HGH) as a way to stave off some of the changes linked to aging, such as decreased muscle and bone mass.
If you’re skeptical, good. There’s little evidence to suggest HGH can help otherwise healthy adults regain youth and vitality. Alternatively, HGH treatments may increase the risk of other medical conditions. Experts recommend against using HGH to treat aging or age-related conditions.
Do some adults need HGH treatment?
Adults who have a growth hormone deficiency — not the expected decline in growth hormone due to aging — might be prescribed synthetic HGH by their health care provider. Growth hormone deficiency is usually caused by a benign tumor on the pituitary gland (pituitary adenoma) or by treatment of an adenoma with surgery or radiotherapy.
For adults who have a growth hormone deficiency, injections of HGH can:
- Increase exercise capacity
- Increase bone density
- Increase muscle mass
- Decrease body fat
HGH treatment is also approved to treat adults with AIDS- or HIV-related growth hormone deficiency that causes irregular distribution of body fat.
How does HGH treatment affect healthy older adults?
Studies of healthy adults taking human growth hormone are limited and contradictory. Although it appears that human growth hormone can increase muscle mass and reduce the amount of body fat in healthy older adults, the increase in muscle doesn’t translate into increased strength. It isn’t clear if human growth hormone provides other benefits to healthy adults.
What are the risks of HGH treatment?
HGH treatment might cause a number of side effects for healthy adults, including:
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Increased insulin resistance
- Type 2 diabetes
- Swelling in the arms and legs (edema)
- Joint and muscle pain
- For men, enlargement of breast tissue (gynecomastia)
- Increased risk of certain cancers
Clinical studies of HGH treatment in healthy older adults have been relatively small and short in duration, so there’s little to no information about the long-term effects of HGH treatment.
Does HGH come in pill form?
HGH treatment is approved in the United States only for treatment of growth hormone deficiency — and related problems associated with HIV infection. HGH is only effective if administered as an injection. There’s no pill form of human growth hormone available. Some dietary supplements that claim to boost levels of HGH come in pill form, but research doesn’t show a benefit.
HGH is considered a controlled substance by the Food and Drug Administration. Using HGH for a condition that isn’t approved, such as building muscle or as an anti-aging treatment in older adults, is illegal.
What’s the bottom line?
If you have specific concerns about aging, ask your health care provider about proven ways to improve your health. Remember, healthy lifestyle choices — such as eating a healthy diet and including physical activity in your daily routine — can help you feel your best as you get older.