DHEA, the "mother hormone," is produced by the adrenal glands and serves as the starting material for other hormones, especially testosterone. Since DHEA production peaks during life's third decade, it's intriguing to ask: If we maintain 20 year old DHEA levels, will youthful vigor likewise be maintained? Put another way: Can we hold fast to the spirit of youth in spite of our years?
What Does Science Tell Us?
The jury is still out. There is no definitive answer in the scientific community.
However, of all the research on DHEA, one promising study stands out because it covers most of the effects people report. Researchers at U.C. San Diego tested the idea by giving 40 to 60 year old volunteers 50 milligrams of DHEA each evening. They chose this amount because it restores DHEA, on average, to 30 year old levels. After six months on the regimen, it appeared that a "youthful spirit" was at least partially restored when the researchers compared the placebo versus the DHEA groups.
DHEA users reported increased mobility, an ability to cope with stress, better sleep, and less joint pain when it was an issue. Men, not women, had reduced body fat and more lean body (muscle) mass. This observation indicates that DHEA restores testosterone levels, which is critical to the concept. Most importantly, DHEA users had an increase in the "insulin growth factor," an important compound that stimulates the immune system, and also has a part in the improved muscle mass. An increase in this factor is a compelling reason for more in depth study, because immune decline is a major problem in aging. No side-effects were observed, and disappointing to some, the sexual drive didn't return to what it was at 20 years of age.
The UCSD study is not definitive since there is always a minimum of 15% placebo effect in objective studies, and more in studies that rely on subjective values, such as sleep quality. A longer term crossover study is necessary to deal with individuality and perhaps other issues. But setting the 15% placebo effect aside, any objective scientist must look very closely at these DHEA results, and conclude it is worth much more study. Indeed, many have, and there is lots of research underway.
Animal Studies Are Supportive
Animal studies go much further and support the San Diego observations. Indeed, animal studies suggest DHEA's human potential may be incredible. Humans are like maple leaves, we are all the same and yet each of us is different. When we say that DHEA drops to one-third its 20 year old level by age 60 year old individuals, DHEA levels hardly dropped at all, and in others they were too low to measure. Hence, some will take DHEA and ask, "What's the big deal?" Yet others will say, "I'm 30 years old again."
The most compelling question is: If we maintain our 20 year old level starting at age 21, will we truly "hold fast to the spirit of youth?" In contrast, starting at age 60 might produce some terrific results.
Are There Any Problems?
You can abuse any biologically active material, so exercise common sense. Dealing with excesses takes a toll on your body's metabolic machinery, and DHEA is no exception. Take sensible amounts, such as in the UCSD study. Anyone with a chronic health problem, especially an enlarged prostate or other hormone-related condition, should be extra cautious. If in doubt, stay away or get the right advice.
In a decade, we should know where DHEA is taking us. Blood DHEA levels might emerge as an index of individual aging rates, so its use can be tailored to meet a realistic target. Some of us might benefit markedly from 50 milligrams, while others won't need any. Beneficial effects on the immune system are starting to produce exciting results in animal studies.
We can't say that DHEA will help us live any better, longer, or beyond the apparent 120 year upper limit that seems obvious right now. However, I'll still bet that my great grandchildren will be looking forward to a 150 year life expectancy, and DHEA just might be part of their health program.
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