DHEA: Evidence for anti-aging claims is weak

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DHEA: Evidence for anti-aging claims is weak

Photo of K. Sreekumaran Nair, M.D.
K. Sreekumaran Nair, M.D.

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.

What are the side effects of DHEA?

Some studies of DHEA have linked the supplement to:

  • Reduced high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good," cholesterol levels
  • Increased facial hair in women
  • Acne

Long-term adverse effects of DHEA are still being researched. Because DHEA can, in theory, raise testosterone and estrogen levels, there's some concern that long-term or excessive use of DHEA supplements could increase the risk of prostate cancer, breast cancer or other hormone-sensitive cancers.

What do you tell people who want to try DHEA?

DHEA supplementation doesn't have proven benefits in older adults and might cause adverse side effects. Don't take DHEA to prevent, delay or reverse age-related changes in your body. Instead, remember that there's no substitute for a healthy lifestyle. Maintain a healthy weight, eat a balanced diet, include physical activity in your daily routine, and seek regular health screenings.

Last Updated: 2011-10-21
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