DHEA: Evidence for anti-aging claims is weak

If you're considering taking DHEA, get the facts. Research doesn't necessarily support the supplement's anti-aging claims. By Mayo Clinic Staff

DHEA is often touted as an anti-aging therapy, used to ward off chronic illness and maintain energy and vigor. However, most research doesn't back up these claims. Here, K. Sreekumaran Nair, M.D., Ph.D., an endocrinologist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., answers questions about DHEA.

What is DHEA?

Your body naturally produces the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in the adrenal gland. In turn, DHEA helps produce other hormones, including testosterone and estrogen. A synthetic version of DHEA is available in pill form. It's sold as a dietary supplement in the U.S., but is available only by prescription in most other countries.

What does DHEA have to do with aging?

Natural DHEA levels peak in early adulthood and then slowly fall as you age. Some people suspect that low levels of DHEA cause or contribute to common age-related changes, such as decreasing muscle mass, reduced bone density and cognitive impairment. In theory, taking DHEA supplements to maintain DHEA levels could slow the aging process. Research hasn't proved this to be true, however.

Some research suggests that DHEA can improve hipbone mineral density in both men and women, as well as spine bone mineral density, concentration and memory in women. In addition, a small study found that adding DHEA to exercise in older, frail women helped improve muscle function. However, other research doesn't support these findings.

For example, a 2006 Mayo Clinic study examined use of DHEA supplements in older adults over two years and found no anti-aging benefits. While DHEA levels went up to the same levels found in younger people, there were no differences between those who took DHEA and those who didn't in body composition, physical performance, insulin sensitivity or quality of life. A 2008 Mayo Clinic study also showed DHEA provided no additional benefit to postmenopausal women who exercised. Additional research on the effect of DHEA on muscle strength and physical function in older adults remains inconclusive.

Oct. 21, 2011 See more In-depth