Human growth hormone is described by some as the key to slowing the aging process. Before you sign up, get the facts.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Growth hormone fuels childhood growth and helps maintain tissues and organs throughout life. It's produced by the pea-sized pituitary gland — located at the base of the brain. Beginning in middle age, however, the pituitary gland slowly reduces the amount of growth hormone it produces.

This natural slowdown has triggered an interest in using synthetic human growth hormone (HGH) as a way to stave off some of the changes linked to aging, such as decreased muscle and bone mass.

If you're skeptical, good. There's little evidence to suggest human growth hormone can help otherwise healthy adults regain youth and vitality. In fact, experts recommend against using HGH to treat aging or age-related conditions.

Yes. Adults who have true growth hormone deficiency — not the expected decline in growth hormone due to aging — might be prescribed synthetic human growth hormone by their doctors.

Growth hormone deficiency might be caused by a benign tumor on the pituitary gland (pituitary adenoma). It also might be caused by treatment of an adenoma with surgery or radiotherapy.

For adults who have a growth hormone deficiency, injections of human growth hormone can:

  • Increase exercise capacity
  • Increase bone density
  • Increase muscle mass
  • Decrease body fat

Human growth hormone is also approved to treat adults with AIDS- or HIV-related muscle wasting.

Studies of healthy adults taking human growth hormone are limited. Although it appears that human growth hormone can increase muscle mass and reduce the amount of body fat in healthy older adults, the increase in muscle doesn't translate into increased strength. It isn't clear if human growth hormone might provide other benefits to healthy adults.

Human growth hormone might cause a number of side effects for healthy adults, including:

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Increased insulin resistance
  • Swelling in the arms and legs (edema)
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • For men, enlargement of breast tissue (gynecomastia)

Human growth hormone might also contribute to conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease and possibly an increased risk of some cancers.

Some research suggests that side effects of human growth hormone treatments might be more likely in older adults than in younger people. Because the studies of healthy adults taking human growth hormone have been short term, it isn't clear whether the side effects could eventually dissipate or become worse.

When prescribed by a doctor, human growth hormone is administered as an injection under the skin. There's no pill form of human growth hormone available by prescription. Some websites sell a pill form of human growth hormone, claiming that it produces results similar to the injected form of the drug.

However, there's no proof that these claims are true. These dietary supplements are sometimes called human growth hormone releasers. There's also no proof that homeopathic remedies claiming to contain human growth hormone work.

If you have specific concerns about aging, ask your doctor about proven ways to improve your health. Remember, healthy lifestyle choices — such as eating a healthy diet and including physical activity in your daily routine — can help you feel your best as you get older.

Oct. 25, 2016