Summer 2002

Life and Health

The Science of Growing Young

Hormones are produced by the endocrine glands and then sent all over the body like messengers to stimulate specific activities such as growth, digestion, reproduction and sexual functions. 

As might be expected, human growth hormone (HGH) makes people grow. It is a complex protein molecule containing 191 amino acids and is secreted by the pituitary gland between 10 and 30 times a day. Considered by some to be the master hormone, it is vital for the proper growth, development and function of nearly every organ and system in the body. 

Doctors have prescribed HGH for about 35 years for children whose growth rate was below normal. At first the hormone was extracted from cow carcasses, but because a number of children contracted mad-cow disease, development of a synthetic equivalent became necessary. San Francisco– based Genentech introduced one of the first bioengineered human growth hormones in 1985. The man-made version is called soma-tropin or somatrem and is available by prescription only. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved HGH in 1996 for adults identified as deficient: those with hypopituitarism or who were growth-hormone-deficient during childhood and who have growth hormone deficiency confirmed in adulthood may benefit from supplemental hormone therapy. 

Since FDA approval, however, hundreds of physicians are prescribing HGH as a therapy to combat the aging process. Advocates claim the hormone will lower blood pressure, build muscles, increase skin elasticity, thicken hair, and generally improve other facets of physical well-being including vision, sleep and sexual potency. 

On the other hand, many doctors argue that using HGH to try to slow down the aging clock, or possibly even reverse it, is questionable as a medical procedure because it doesn’t constitute the correction of a deficiency. 

Although a few proponents are fully convinced that HGH can favorably alter the aging process, the National Institute on Aging feels the scientific evidence supporting this premise is, for the most part, sketchy. Before they will recommend it for antiaging, the institute is waiting for results of investigations into its long-term use.