Injections of human growth hormone, which have become increasingly popular after being aggressively advertised as a "fountain of youth," do reverse some of the common physical attributes of aging, a new federally-sponsored study has found. But they also have potentially serious side effects, including increasing the risk of developing diabetes, carpal tunnel syndrome and other harmful effects.
In the most extensive clinical trial so far of the hormone -- which is available at the many "anti-aging" centers opening in areas popular with retirees -- researchers concluded that the growth hormone treatment was "promising" but not ready for widespread use.
"There may be benefits to some older people in the use of growth hormone, but the safety is not established and it should only be used in controlled trials," said Marc Blackman of the National Institutes of Health, who led the study. "This is not ready for prime-time."
Nonetheless, the hormone injections are increasingly common, although federal officials said Tuesday there are no good statistics about how many people are purchasing the growth hormone for off-label, or black market, use. Some have estimated the number of older adults injecting the hormone to be 25,000 to 35,000, but some doctors involved in the business say the overall use is well over 100,000 people. Reflecting the popularity, companies that produce the hormone have recently reported robust sales.
The new study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, followed 131 men and women aged 65 to 88 for six months. The subjects who were injected with the hormone developed signifcantly more muscle and lost significantly more fat that the placebo group, the researchers found. But 18 of the men on growth hormone developed diabetes or glucose intolerance, as opposed to 7 not receiving the hormone.
The study results were specific to the over-65 age group, but with growth hormone widely advertised and sold over the Internet and by some physician sponsors, the population using the product is hardly limited to older people.
Although growth hormones have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration only to treat severe deficiencies in children and adults, officials believe it is also being widely prescribed off-label and injected into aging baby-boomers who believe it will help keep them feeling and looking young. It is also actively used by athletes and body builders in entirely unregulated -- and researchers say, quite unsafe -- ways.
Human growth hormone is made in the pituitary gland, a pea-sized structure located at the base of the brain, and is believed to be essential to the normal development and operation of tissues and organs. The two sex hormones, testosterone and estrogen, work in combination with growth hormone to produce puberty and maturation in teens.
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