Hormone can trim belly fat in elderly

Times Staff Writer

All right, it’s not the fountain of youth. But a study published in the Nov. 10 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Assn. has found that DHEA, a hormone widely marketed as a nutritional supplement, decreases belly fat and improves the body’s use of insulin among the elderly when taken daily for six months. Earlier studies have shown that DHEA supplementation led to improved bone density and an enhanced sense of well-being.

“We were surprised that there was such an effect,” said Dr. Dennis Villareal, one of the study’s authors. “It is an active medication that causes changes.... It’s not snake oil.”

Dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, is a hormone naturally produced by the adrenal glands. When broken down by the body, it becomes an active sex hormone, such as testosterone or estrogen. But production of DHEA peaks at about age 20, then declines gradually as one ages.

In a six-month study of 56 men and women, average age 71, researchers at Washington University had half the participants take 50 milligrams daily of DHEA as a supplement -- an amount that could be expected to return the levels of DHEA circulating in their bodies to those of their youth. The other half of the participants took dummy pills. In women who took the DHEA, levels of belly fat fell by 10.2%, while men’s belly fat decreased by 7.4%. In both men and women taking DHEA, subcutaneous fat -- stores of fat carried just below the skin’s surface -- went down by 6%. At the end of the study period, subjects receiving the DHEA supplement also had lower insulin levels in response to glucose tolerance tests, while their glucose levels remained unchanged. That’s an indication that they had improved “insulin action,” a measure of metabolic health that tends to decline with age. The study is “very promising, but we need to take it cautiously at this point,” said Villareal.