As soon as Ryan, a Nashville entrepreneur, hit 30, he was convinced: His personal life was over. “The wrinkles were right around the corner,” he says. All the fun had already been had. So he booked an appointment with an anti-aging specialist, looking to start a regimen of what he’d heard described as “the fountain-of-youth serum” — human growth hormone, or HGH. After an initial screening, which included a full-body physical and some blood work, he was handed a prescription for daily injections. A box of vials showed up at his front door the next day.
That was six years ago. And other than the high price (around $600 a month), Ryan had zero complaints. “My sleeping habits had never been better. My overall mood was more positive,” he says. “My skin was tighter, and I felt more rejuvenated.” His recovery time after a tough workout was cut in half. “But the best thing about being on HGH,” he enthuses, “is that it was impossible to get a hangover.” Turns out he’d barely known what fun was.
HGH is a protein naturally produced by the pituitary gland, responsible for stimulating muscle, cell, and bone growth throughout the body. And it is one of the first things to go: Beginning in a person’s late 20s and early 30s, the body’s growth-hormone production declines and continues to fall. M.D.’s specializing in the burgeoning field of age management are increasingly touting synthetic growth hormone — made in the lab out of various amino acids — as a safe and effective way to reverse some of the effects of aging. Though the results are largely anecdotal, patients report lower body fat, better sleep and memory, tighter skin, better workouts (and quicker recovery), lower blood pressure, and improved libido following just a few weeks of daily injections. Advocates include PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who has said he’s hoping HGH will help him live to be 120, and, reportedly, various Hollywood A-listers, including Oliver Stone and 50 Cent.
“As today’s generations get older, they want what they want,” says Robert Willix, M.D., a former cardiac surgeon who prescribes HGH to patients at his Boca Raton integrative medical practice and who used it himself for many years. “And they want to be healthy, lose fat, increase muscle, look and feel better. Growth hormone does all of these things.” Today, at 72, he’s training for his second Ironman competition.
So why the hell not? For one thing, it’s not entirely legal. While the FDA approves the use of HGH for those whose bodies don’t make enough of it, including kids with growth disorders and adults with rare cases of degenerative muscle disease or growth-hormone-deficiency syndrome — all in all, a small number — off-label usage of the stuff is banned. In fact, HGH is the only medication that by law cannot be prescribed for anything but indicated use. It’s also very expensive: Treatment can average $800 to $1,500 a month, depending on how much you need, and, unless you’re in one of the FDA-sanctioned groups, it is not covered by insurance.
Another problem: For those who are not truly growth-hormone deficient, science says that use of synthetic HGH is a bunch of BS. Stanford University endocrinologist Andrew Hoffman, M.D., who’s studied growth-hormone therapy for 20 years, says that while numerous studies have proven HGH can lead to a modest change in an otherwise healthy person’s body composition — subjects consistently lost an average of two to four pounds of fat and gained the same amount in lean tissue — any other benefits are likely a result of the placebo effect. There have been a few studies that say otherwise: One found that HGH can be effective therapy for traumatic brain injury; another, a 2010 study sponsored by the World Anti-Doping Agency, found that HGH can have a positive effect on athletic performance, specifically “spring capacity,” otherwise known as jumping. But these results, Hoffman says, have never been replicated.
And there is some potential for harm, especially for older patients, including development of excess water, carpal tunnel syndrome, and joint pain. Hoffman also points to theoretical risks for those who are predisposed to develop diabetes, and he mentions concerns about the potential for HGH to cause growth not only of healthy tissue but of cancers (though he points out that there is still no scientific evidence to back up the theory). In general, he says, the few studies that have been conducted have been short-term and largely inconclusive. “The drug companies haven’t wanted to sponsor research,” he explains, and sponsorship is critical since HGH is very expensive.
Doctors who administer HGH remain undeterred — his patients’ own reports of better health is all the proof he needs, says Willix — and are able to skirt the ban thanks to the lack of any standardized testing requirements and the freedom largely to determine on their own what makes someone “deficient.” Besides, proponents argue, they’re only bringing patients up to normal, “peak” levels. “I see lots of guys who are stressed out with their Wall Street jobs or who give sleep short shrift for one reason or another,” says Joseph Raffaele, M.D., who estimates 20 percent of the patients at his Manhattan age-management practice take HGH injections, usually in combination with other hormones like testosterone or estrogen. Some are 40 and feel like 60; others are 60 and want to feel like they’re 40. “We don’t jack up athletes — it’s a very safe medication that’s in your body when you’re born,” says Raffaele, who at 57 has been using HGH for 20 years and is often mistaken for a man two decades younger. (When he’s not practicing medicine, he runs a software company and competes in triathlons.) “There’s a general concept in the U.S. about doing things, like aging ‘the old-fashioned way,’ but if you have a hormone that drops 50 percent or more from what it is at its peak, I believe there is cause to replace it,” he says. Men these days are forgoing golf for cycling and CrossFit. They’re having second and third families well into their 60s. They want to be able to keep up. “And isn’t that the point of health care?” he asks.
Greg, a 58-year-old entertainment executive in Manhattan, added HGH to his testosterone -eplacement regimen about a year ago after hurting his forearm playing tennis. After a three-month regimen of HGH and physical therapy, his right forearm muscle grew an inch in circumference, to 13.5 — “bigger than the pros,” he points out. Satisfied, he stopped the HGH, primarily because of the cost, which was about $900 a month. His arm stayed the same size, but the pain quickly returned. So now he considers HGH an indispensable part of maintenance and essential to his tennis game. On HGH, he claims, he maintains a body-fat percentage that hovers around 11 or 12, and he can play tennis five or six times a week, without soreness or injury. He reports “no adverse effects, other than youthfulness.”
But while Hoffman says the harm of HGH is “mostly theoretical” — at least at the low doses doctors prescribe for anti-aging — the price tag is all too real, and it may well increase as demand grows. “It’s most harmful to the wallet,” he says, especially given the absence of proof that users are doing anything beyond pumping their bodies full of chemicals and wishful thinking. “It’s really just a pricey placebo.”