Human Growth Hormone
Growth hormone is important for normal growth and development, as well as for maintaining tissues and organs. It is made by the pituitary gland, a pea-sized structure located at the base of the brain.
Research supports supplemental use of human growth hormone (hGH) injections in certain circumstances. For instance, hGH injections can help children who do not produce enough growth hormone. Sometimes hGH injections may be prescribed for young adults whose obesity is the result of having had their pituitary gland surgically removed. These uses are different from taking hGH as an “anti-aging” strategy. As with other hormones, growth hormone levels often decline with age, but this decrease is not necessarily bad. At least one epidemiological study suggests that people who have high levels of naturally produced growth hormone are more apt to die at younger ages than those with lower levels of the hormone. Researchers have also studied animals with genetic disorders that suppress growth hormone production and secretion. They found that reduced growth hormone secretion actually promotes longevity in the tested species.
Although there is no conclusive evidence that hGH can prevent aging or halt age-related physical decline, some clinics market hGH for that purpose, and some people spend a great deal of money on such supplements. Shots can cost more than $15,000 a year. These shots are only available by prescription and should be administered by a doctor. But, because of the unknown risks—and the evidence suggests that side effects strongly overcome any possible benefits—it is hard to find a doctor who will prescribe hGH shots. Over-the-counter dietary supplements, known as human growth hormone releasers, are currently being marketed as low-cost alternatives to hGH shots. But claims of their anti-aging effects, like all those regarding hGH, are unsubstantiated.
Research is starting to paint a fuller picture of the effects of hGH, but there is still much to learn. For instance, study findings indicate that injections of hGH can increase muscle mass; however, it seems to have little impact on muscle strength or function. Questions about potential side effects, such as diabetes, joint pain, and fluid buildup leading to high blood pressure or heart failure, remain unanswered, too. A report that children who were treated with pituitary growth hormone have an increased risk of cancer created a heightened concern about the dangers of hGH injections. Whether or not older people treated with hGH for extended periods have an increased risk of cancer is unknown. To date, only small, short-term studies have looked specifically at hGH as an “anti-aging” therapy for older people. Additional research is necessary to assess the potential risks and benefits of hGH.
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