Rochester, Minnesota - 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 in Rochester, Minnesota, 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 United States. Studies have shown quality control of this supplement to be low.

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. But research hasn't proved this to be true.

The evidence for DHEA generally shows no benefit. Limited research suggests that DHEA can improve hipbone mineral density in both men and women, as well as spine bone mineral density in women. Other small studies have indicated that DHEA can improve psychological well-being and memory, reduce body fat, and improve muscle strength.

However, other research doesn't support these findings. Improvements in bone density were small compared with those seen after treatment with approved osteoporosis medications. Most studies indicate no effect of DHEA on mood or cognitive function or on fat and muscle performance.

For example, a 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. Studies also showed that despite modestly increasing testosterone levels in postmenopausal women, DHEA failed to increase physical performance on exercise training.

DHEA may eventually prove to have benefits in treating people diagnosed with certain conditions, such as adrenal insufficiency, lupus, ovarian dysfunction and allergies. However, further studies are needed.

What are the side effects of DHEA?

DHEA is a hormone and part of a steroid pathway. There are concerns that using it as a supplement may increase the risk of hormone-sensitive cancers, including prostate, breast and ovarian cancers. The National Collegiate Athletic Association has banned DHEA use among athletes.

DHEA has been linked to:

  • Reduced high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good," cholesterol levels
  • Increased facial hair in women or hair loss
  • Acne
  • Mania and heart palpitations
  • Liver problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Insulin resistance

Supplements such as DHEA can also cause serious adverse effects when mixed with prescription or nonprescription drugs.

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 or to boost athletic performance.

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.