Despite its popularity, growth hormone (GH) doesn’t work as an anti-aging agent and causes serious side effects in healthy people, a review of the literature has found. The most common side effects are soft-tissue edema and arthralgias, but users were also more likely than nonusers to suffer carpal tunnel syndrome and gynecomastia, as well as to develop impaired fasting glucose levels and even diabetes.

The anti-aging properties of GH were first reported 17 years ago in The New England Journal of Medicine (1990;323:1-6). Researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee found that recombinant human growth hormone could improve the body composition of healthy elderly men. Even though GH was tested on only 12 men for six months, it generated widespread interest. Fourteen years later, in 2004, as many as as many as 30,000 Americans were undergoing GH therapy.

In the new study, researchers analyzed 31 trials conducted between 1990 and 2005. Most participants were overweight men whose mean age was 69 and whose mean BMI was 28. About a third of the participants were women. Therapy comprised an average initial GH dose 14 µg/kg of body weight for a mean duration of 27 weeks.

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Overall fat mass declined 2.1 kg (4.6 lb), balanced by a similar rise in overall lean body mass. The average overall weight change was <4 oz. Total cholesterol levels dropped 11.31 mg/dL, which was deemed insignificant after the body composition changes were taken into account. Bone density, maximal oxygen consumption, and other serum lipid levels were unaffected.

Major soft-tissue edema was common, occurring in half the subjects. A mean proportion of 19% reported carpal tunnel syndrome, while 21% reported arthralgias, and 22% developed impaired fasting glucose, impaired glucose tolerance, or even diabetes.

Because GH “is associated with small changes in body composition and an increase in adverse events, [it] cannot be recommended as an anti-aging therapy,” the reviewers concluded (Ann Intern Med. 2007;146:104-115).