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Can you find youth in DHEA?

Special to The Times

The product: In a person’s later years, many trappings of youth tend to fade, including energy levels, muscle strength and a tolerance for reality television.

Starting about age 30, the passing years are also marked by a steady drop in the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone, better known as DHEA. The body uses DHEA as raw material for making sex hormones such as testosterone and estrogen, compounds that definitely help fuel youthful vigor.

Modern seekers of the fountain of youth saw promise in the relationship: Young, healthy people have lots of DHEA; older people are running low. Could regaining youth be as simple as taking a pill? That tantalizing prospect has spawned a wide range of DHEA supplements sold at grocery and health food stores.

Midwestern Wellness markets an herbal blend that includes 50 milligrams of DHEA. Taking the recommended one capsule each day, you’d get a one-month supply for a little more than $20. DHEA alone costs less. A one-month supply of 25-milligram capsules from Dynamic Fitness costs less than $10.

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The claims: The website for Midwestern Wellness says the DHEA in its supplement helps “revitalize and rejuvenate while creating an overall sense of well-being” and that extra DHEA can speed weight loss and may help “fight against the . . . diseases that strike with age,” including cancer, diabetes and heart disease. The Dynamic Fitness site says DHEA “maintains youth and health” and “may be beneficial for” a range of conditions, including AIDS, depression and menopause.

Sales of DHEA are going strong, although the hype seemed to peak in the late 1990s. One book from 1997 nicely captures the tone of the times: “DHEA: The miracle hormone that can help boost immunity, increase energy, lighten your mood, improve your sex drive & lengthen your lifespan.”

The bottom line: Researchers once saw real potential in DHEA -- but in recent years, rigorous studies of the hormone have consistently failed to show benefits. “It’s very disappointing,” says Dr. K. Sreekumaran Nair, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and lead author of a two-year DHEA study published in 2006. “I wouldn’t spend any money on DHEA.”

Nair and colleagues recruited nearly 150 men and women more than 60 years old with low levels of DHEA. The subjects took either 75 milligrams of DHEA or a placebo every day for two years. (About one-third of the men took a low-dose testosterone supplement instead.)

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The subjects taking DHEA ended up with levels of the hormone usually seen in 20- to 30-year-olds. But everything else seemed stuck in old age. Compared with those who took a placebo, the DHEA group didn’t enjoy improvements in body composition, muscle strength, blood sugar control or quality of life. DHEA did slightly boost bone density, but, Nair says, far less than one could get with prescription bone-strengthening medications.

Researchers at UC San Diego reached a similar dead end in their Dehydroepiandrosterone and Wellness study of 225 men and women ages 55 and over. Full results have yet to be published, but lead author Dr. Denise von Muhlen, an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, is ready with a verdict: Taking 50 milligrams of DHEA each day for a year had no effect on mood, cognition, strength, body composition or sexuality.

These studies didn’t look at cancer, heart disease or other chronic illnesses, but Nair says there isn’t much room for hope.

“People believe that they are buying something that will be useful, but it’s not,” Von Muhlen says. Much like wrinkles and graying hair, a drop in DHEA is probably just a sign of aging, she says -- not a cause. You can’t regain youth and vitality by dyeing your hair. And, Von Muhlen says, you can’t turn back the clock by taking DHEA.

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Is there a product you’d like the Healthy Skeptic to examine? E-mail the details to health@latimes.com.


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