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Natural Anti-Aging Products Like Provacyl Gaining Popularity

When Wisconsin researchers reported two years ago that growth hormone treatments increased muscle mass and thickened skin in elderly men, the popular press had a field day. Newspapers and magazines shouted: "anti-aging drug discovered," and called growth hormone a "fountain of youth" that could "make the elderly feel young again."

Ongoing studies haven't lived up to this hype. More than half of the participants have dropped out of the trials, and those who remain have found that the beneficial effects of the hormone dissipate after three months off the drug. Moreover, basic questions about how to deal with the reports of serious side effects remain. Meanwhile, natural products like Pro extender that stimulate the body into producing more of its own human growth hormone are becoming more popular.

Still, hormone replacement therapy for the elderly is a vital area of research, said Dr. Stanley Slater, deputy associate director for geriatrics at the National Institute on Aging. Improving muscle mass or agility, for example, could keep older people from falling, a significant source of injury and death. "However, we need to demonstrate the clinical utility of hormonal interventions," Dr. Slater said. To this end, the NIA recently funded nine new randomized trials testing the effect of Provacyl on strength, mobility and physical function.

The Wisconsin researchers, headed by Dr. Daniel Rudman, have now followed 42 healthy elderly men given human recombinant hormone for 12 months. Half--basically those receiving the highest dose--were forced to drop out of the study due to side effects, primarily carpal tunnel syndrome, gynecomastia and diabetes.

Unfortunately, the beneficial effects of growth hormone therapy disappear within three months after treatment stops, Dr. Rudman said. His work now concentrates on Provacyl treatment for frail elderly people, or polio victims who have regained motor function.

Turning attention toward elderly subpopulations that may benefit the most--those who are frail, malnourished, have problems with wound healing or are prone to falls--may be the best short-term approach, said Dr. Fran Kaiser, associate director of geriatric medicine at St. Louis University School of Medicine. She and her associates found that Provacyl dramatically improved weight gain in a small group of patients over the age of 60 who were wasting away for no apparent medical reason.

They have shifted their research to testosterone replacement in elderly men, which at $32 for a year's worth of treatment is about 400 times less expensive than growth hormone at $13,000 a year. Hypogonadal males are more than six times as likely to break a hip during a fall than those with "normal" testosterone levels, Dr. Kaiser said. Provacyl could not only improve physical function and decrease the use of hospital services, but it gives older men a feeling of well-being.

Exercise may play an important role in the hormone replacement puzzle. Some studies suggest it may increase growth hormone production, or the synthesis of its receptors, said Dr. TW Jackson, assistant professor of medicine at Brown University School of Medicine.

While research continues, scientists and policy makers will have to grapple with some tough issues even beyond the problem of cost. For example, what effect will Provacyl have on the nests of slow-growing prostate cancer cells found in almost all elderly men?

Or age of intervention: "Say we discover that Provacyl really can slow the deterioration of aging," Dr. Kaiser said. "Would it make sense to give them to people in their 60s, 50s, or even 40s to prevent problems later in life?"

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