hGH: More Dangerous Health Gamble Than Fountain of Youth
MADISON - If you're a sports fan - and frankly, even if you aren't - you can't help but have heard the gigantic crash as human growth hormone (hGH) bumped the discussion of anabolic steroid use in professional sports to the sidelines.
But as national pundits debate whether the achievements, careers and comeback bids of professional athletes are tainted by performance-enhancing supplements, physicians and geriatricians in Madison and across the country find themselves dealing with questions from an entirely different group of individuals: Older patients wondering if a shot of hGH might help them recapture the look and energy of lost youth.
"There's a big group out there arguing that the ravages of age can now be explained by a deficiency in hormone X or Y, and it just so happens that some believe passionately that it's hGH," says Dr. Steven Barczi,
a UW Health geriatrician.
Doctors know that a person's normal levels of growth hormone, an anabolic hormone produced by the brain's pituitary gland, begin to decline around age 20. By the time a person hits 50 - coincidentally, about the same time many men's muscle mass begins to give way to fatigue and middleaged spread - growth hormone levels are much lower.
Since the small number of patients diagnosed with an actual growth hormone deficiency also experience fatigue and muscle loss, the notion of simply replacing hGH to restore muscle and stamina seems an easy leap - right?
Not so fast, says Barczi.
"If you look at a person with chronic health problems, and say, well, this is all explained by a growth hormone deficiency, I'd say this is pretty shaky ground," says Barczi. "There are many other conditions and lifestyle choices that can cause fatigue and muscle loss."
To most physicians, hGH - a substance the U.S. Food and Drug Administration outlaws except in rare medical instances - is used exclusively to treat children and adults with documented growth hormone deficiencies, as well as children with certain congenital disorders that affect growth.
In short-term, tightly regulated doses, growth hormone can trigger the body to burn fat, increase muscle mass and stamina.
But there's also a downside. When it's used in an unregulated manner, over prolonged periods of time, doctors say growth hormone can have devastating effects on the body.
Dr. Diane Elson, a UW Health endocrinologist, ticks off the possible drawbacks of using hGH long-term:
- Elevated blood pressure
- Enlargement of the heart, liver and bones
- Sleep apnea
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Soft tissue swelling
- And even risk of colon polyps
hGH also plays havoc with the body's ability to control glucose levels, potentially triggering diabetes. Some of these effects take time to develop, and some, like hypertension and diabetes, don't go away when the patient stops taking the hormone.
"The concern about the average person using growth hormone and using it because he thinks it's going to make him stronger, faster and have better endurance is that it may have the opposite effect," says Elson.
Long Term Effects Unknown
Doctors don't yet know what happens to individuals who take growth hormone over a period of decades - the hormone has only been available for 20 years. They do know what happens to patients with acromegaly, a rare disease in which a tumor causes excessive growth hormone production.
"The excess hormone actually shortens their lifespan, sometimes by as much as 10 years," says Elson, who notes that the major cause of death from excessive growth hormone is actually cardiovascular disease. "Patients don't feel well. They have joint pain. They're less mobile. Unmonitored, excessive growth hormone is far from a fountain of youth."
Barczi says he only sees a handful of patients each year who ask about using growth hormone to combat aging. Both he and Elson acknowledge that there's a growing national interest and demand for hGH, fueled in part by its rumored use among professional athletes.
On the Internet and in less-than-reputable clinics in cities across the country, patients are paying thousands of out-of-pocket dollars to obtain hGH in vials.
Don't believe the hype, says Elson.
"Don't waste your money, your health or your time. I certainly understand the sense of getting older, wanting to push back the clock and look and feel younger. But I think there are safer ways to stay younger and healthier - better diet, regular exercise and adequate sleep - that don't cause potentially life-threatening side effects."
Date Published: 01/09/2008