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 is produced by the pituitary gland — a pea-sized structure at the base of the brain — to fuel childhood growth and help maintain tissues and organs throughout life. Beginning in middle age, however, the pituitary gland slowly reduces the amount of growth hormone it produces.

This natural slowdown has prompted an interest in the use of synthetic human growth hormone (HGH) to stave off some of the changes that occur with age, such as decreased muscle and bone mass.

If you're skeptical, good for you. 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 — may be prescribed synthetic human growth hormone by their doctors.

Growth hormone deficiency in adults is rare and may be caused by pituitary adenoma — a tumor on the pituitary gland — or treatment of the 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 short bowel syndrome or 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 may provide other benefits to healthy adults.

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

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

Human growth hormone may also contribute to conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Some research suggests that side effects of human growth hormone treatments may 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.

Human growth hormone is typically administered as an injection under the skin. Some websites sell a pill form of human growth hormone and claim that it produces results similar to the injected form of the drug. Sometimes these dietary supplements are called human growth hormone releasers. However, there's no proof that these claims are true. Likewise, there's 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.

Feb. 01, 2014