Growth drugs don’t fight aging, researchers find

Times Staff Writer

Human growth hormone injections do not increase life span or fitness, and have many potential adverse effects, including joint swelling and pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and a tendency toward diabetes, Stanford University researchers report today.

Compiling results from 31 separate studies in about 500 healthy adults, Dr. Hau Liu of Stanford and his colleagues at Stanford and the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System conclude in the Annals of Internal Medicine that there is no rationale for the elderly to use the drug.

“You are paying a lot of money for a therapy that may have minimal or no benefit and yet has a potential for some serious side effects,” Liu said.

“The appropriate conclusion is that it is premature to be using human growth hormone” to reverse the effects of aging, said Dr. S. Jay Olshansky of the University of Illinois at Chicago, who was not involved in the study. “It is also illegal.”

About 20,000 to 30,000 Americans were taking human growth hormone as an anti-aging treatment in 2004, at a cost of at least $1,000 a month, Olshansky and his colleagues reported in 2005. By some estimates, the market for the hormone and for related products for anti-aging purposes totals more than $1.5 billion a year.


Books, magazine articles and Internet advertisements “claim that the benefits of HGH have been proved in thousands of studies in tens of thousands of patients,” Olshansky said in an interview.

“The fact is, that is not true. The actual number of person-years studied is very limited.”

HGH, which is produced by genetic engineering techniques, is used to treat children’s growth problems arising from a variety of causes. In adults, its use is approved only for the wasting syndrome caused by AIDS and for growth hormone deficiency, which must be demonstrated through specific tests. All other uses in adults are expressly forbidden -- although many physicians and patients are not aware of that, Olshansky said.

Liu and his colleagues studied all reports in the medical literature that involved controlled trials of HGH in healthy adults. Combining the studies, they reported that six months of HGH treatment increased muscle mass by less than 5 pounds and decreased fat by a similar amount.

“If you went to a gym pretty regularly, you might get that change without breaking into too much of a sweat, and you wouldn’t spend $1,000 to $2,000 per month,” Liu said.

The drug had no effect on other clinically important outcomes, including bone density, cholesterol and lipid levels and maximal oxygen consumption.

It did, however, have a variety of side effects. Edema, or soft tissue swelling, was the most common, appearing in an average of half of recipients. Carpal tunnel syndrome afflicted 19%; 21% suffered joint and bone pain and swelling. And about 6% of men experienced gynecomastia -- enlargement of the breasts.

“Everyone is looking for the fountain of youth,” Liu said. “But you’ve got to really think about what this drug is doing for you.”

The individual authors were supported by grants from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Institute on Aging, but none of those federal agencies played a role in the study. One of the researchers owns stock in a company that manufactures HGH, among other products.