DHEA, a steroid hormone with the intimidating scientific name dehydroepiandrosterone, is among the more controversial anti-aging therapies. Though many consider it to be the “anti-aging hormone”, there are few large-scale tests on humans showing that it’s actually effective.
DHEA is a natural substance produced by the adrenal glands, and it is used by the body to produce sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone. The body’s production of DHEA peaks in early adulthood – typically in the twenties – and declines as we age.
The decline in DHEA production correlates with a number of age-related changes, including loss of muscle mass and strength, reduced endurance, and lower glucose tolerance. In addition, low levels of DHEA have been observed in patients with a variety of diseases, ranging from diabetes and kidney disease to heart disease, some types of cancer, osteoporosis, and even AIDS.
Many small studies have looked at the association between declining DHEA levels and health problems, particularly those associated with aging. While some research supports the idea that DHEA supplementation can be an effective treatment, the results of all the studies are not universally positive.
DHEA for Depression: Depression is a common problem for aging people. A number of small studies on the use of supplemental laboratory-synthesized DHEA for depression indicate that it may have potential as a treatment, but as yet there are no statistics on long-term effects.
DHEA for Obesity: Obesity is both common among and very dangerous to aging people, significantly increasing the risk factor for many diseases. One of the few large-scale studies involving DHEA monitored over 900 men between the ages of 40 and 70. The research found that central obesity – fat localized around the abdomen – was associated with low levels of DHEA. A much smaller National Institutes of Health study, which monitored 56 participants aged 68 and over, found that participants taking supplemental DHEA had a minimal weight loss after six months while those taking a placebo had a small gain. Interestingly, loss of fat around the abdomen appeared to be positively effected by the DHEA.
But though these preliminary findings show potential, medical science warns that DHEA cannot be considered a tried, safe, and proven treatment for obesity until there is a larger body of research on DHEA and its effects.
DHEA for Sexual Dysfunction: Since DHEA is the precursor for sex hormones, it would seem obvious that declining DHEA levels in aging people would lead to sexual dysfunction and supplemental DHEA would correct that condition. However, the results of research on the use of DHEA to treat sexual dysfunction have been decidedly mixed. To date there is no large-scale, long-term study that proves supplemental DHEA is an effective treatment for sexual dysfunction.
DHEA for Bone Density: Loss of bone strength is one of the most devastating effects of aging. The results of some small and limited studies indicate that supplemental DHEA could possibly be of benefit to bone strength in older women, but it appears to have no positive effect on bone strength for men or younger women.
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