With lawmakers grilling Roger Clemens on Capitol Hill this week about using performance-enhancing drugs, human growth hormone (HGH) is back in the spotlight. Hardly a surprise, given the metronome of such news stories since Jose Canseco published Juiced in 2005, a tell-all tale that alleges widespread steroid use among major leaguers.
What is surprising is how widely human growth hormone is used beyond the arena of athletics. Government investigations such as the U.S. attorney's Operation Phony Pharm and the Albany district attorney's Operation Which Doctor are now highlighting the extent of growth hormone's distribution and use for antiaging purposes. The targets of these investigations are clinics and online marketers who persuade middle-aged and elderly Americans to shell out hundreds of dollars each month for the hormone that, according to boosters, does everything from build bone and muscle mass to improve libido, mood, cognitive function, and sleep quality.
One study estimates that tens and perhaps even hundreds of thousands of Americans now use human growth hormone in this way. Organizations such as the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, a group of 11,500 physicians and scientists committed to actively slowing the aging process, give the movement the veneer of scientific credibility, but as Business Week reports, the antiaging industry remains a magnet for controversy. Distributing prescription human growth hormone "off label" (for purposes other than the few approved indications such as pituitary deficiencies, muscle wasting disease among HIV/AIDS patients, and intestinal failure) for antiaging purposes is technically illegal. However, about a third of human growth hormone prescriptions are used for antiaging or athletic enhancement, a 2005 study published in the Journal of the American Medicine Association estimates. It's also possible to get non-prescription human growth hormone pills and sprays, but the Federal Trade Commission has issued a consumer alert warning that these products are more hype than anything else.
Mainstream medicine certainly doesn't buy in. "Anybody who claims today that human growth hormone can slow, stop, or reverse aging in people is mistaken," says Jay Olshansky, a longevity researcher at the University of Illinois. A recently published study in the Annals of Internal Medicine reviewed the rigorous research on the safety and efficacy of growth hormone in the healthy elderly. Good studies were scarce, but the review found that the hormones do nothing to improve life span, bone mineral density, lipid profiles, insulin resistance, and other markers of health. Moreover, 19 percent of people on growth hormones got carpel tunnel syndrome, compared with 1 percent on placebos; 6 percent of men developed gynecomastia, or enlarged breast tissue, compared with 0 percent on placebos; and 22 percent developed blood sugar level problems compared with 14 percent taking placebos. Swelling was another common side effect.
"The risks of human growth hormone outweigh any possible benefits," says Hau Liu, the Stanford University researcher who led the study, though he points out that it only reviewed selected clinical outcomes. It did not, for example, consider the ability to walk up a flight of stairs or other quality-of-life measures. There was one bright spot for the antiaging industry, though: Lean body mass did increase slightly for older people getting the growth hormone. But, says Liu, they could have done much better by simply working out.