DHEA is a popular dietary supplement among older people, but its positive or negative effects are unclear. Now, there’s scientific proof that DHEA has at least one benefit.
According to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, treatment with dehydroepiandrosterone (the full name of DHEA) appears to reduce abdominal fat and improve insulin sensitivity in elderly men and women.
Decreased insulin sensitivity indicates that the body has become less efficient in processing glucose, which can be a precursor of actual diabetes.
“DHEA levels are known to drop with age, such that elderly persons have levels that are just 20 percent of the value seen at age 20,” lead author Dr. Dennis T. Villareal, from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, told Reuters Health.
“In our study,” he added, “we wanted to see if restoring DHEA would improve the deleterious effects of aging, namely accumulation of abdominal fat and decreased insulin sensitivity.”
Although DHEA has been shown to reduce fat accumulation and protect against insulin resistance in animal studies, it was unclear if humans could reap the same benefits.
To investigate, Villareal along with Dr. John O. Holloszy studied 28 men and 28 women ranging in age from 65 to 78, who took either DHEA (50 milligrams daily) or an inert placebo for 6 months.
MRI was used to assess changes in fat under the skin of the abdomen and around the internal organs, and glucose tolerance testing was used to evaluate insulin responses.
Compared with placebo, DHEA therapy led to significant reductions in visceral and subcutaneous abdominal fat, the researchers found. In addition, DHEA was tied to a significant increase in the insulin sensitivity.
“DHEA gained a lot of media hype before there was any scientific evidence to support its purported anti-aging effects,” Villareal commented. The current findings, however, suggest that the popular supplement does, in fact, have some anti-aging effects, he added.
Before everyone makes a dash to a nutrition store, Villareal cautioned that because “DHEA is not regulated by the FDA, it’s possible that the over-the-counter formulations don’t contain what is indicated.”
Also, he warned that the long-term side effects of DHEA use remain unknown.
Villareal said his team is currently conducting a larger study to look at the effects of DHEA on other aspects of aging, such as changes in bone density.
SOURCE: Journal of the American Medical Association, November 10, 2004.
Revision date: June 14, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD