Life Extension Magazine December 2010
New Research Substantiates the Anti-Aging Properties of DHEA
By Kirk Stokel
In 2007, Life Extension® led the battle against Congress’s ill-conceived campaign to re-classify DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) as an “anabolic steroid drug”—an act that would have made this life-sustaining compound unavailable to the American public without a prescription.
Thanks in no small part to the efforts of Life Extension® members, the battle was won.
Today, less than three years later, scientists have uncovered even more research substantiating DHEA’s remarkable health-promoting benefits.
Sometimes called the “youth hormone,” DHEA is the most abundant hormone precursor in the human body and a source of the sex hormones.
Its steady and precipitous decline is an inevitable consequence of aging, 1 and contributes to the onset of degenerative disease.
The latest scientific discoveries indicate that as little as 50 mg of DHEA per day may:
Daily intake of 90 mg per day and higher has been shown to improve cognitive function and alleviate depression both in the elderly and among individuals suffering from debilitating mental illness.6,7
First introduced to Americans in 1981 by the Life Extension Foundation®, the anti-aging effects of DHEA have been described in medical textbooks starting in the early 1990s.
In this article, you will discover the most up-to-date evidence of DHEA’s profoundly beneficial impact across multiple systems of the body.
Potent Cognitive Support
DHEA deficiency is implicated in numerous age-related conditions, including declines in brain and nervous system function. The latest research suggests that DHEA supplementation may exert powerful neuroprotective effects.
In fact, 2009 witnessed extraordinary advances in our understanding of the cognitive and memory-enhancing benefits of DHEA.
Two large studies showed that levels of DHEA-S in elderly patients correlated significantly and positively with cognitive function. (Chemically similar to DHEA, DHEA-S is the sulfated form of DHEA.)8,9 Prior research had shown that higher DHEA-S levels were directly associated with improved concentration, working memory, and executive (decision-making) function.10
Israeli scientists found that the cognitive dysfunction that occurs in schizophrenia is also partly associated with levels of DHEA-S and other neurosteroids.11 Supplementation with 200 mg per day of DHEA in schizophrenic patients improved attention and motor skills compared with placebo.6 Although the direct symptoms of schizophrenia were unaffected, DHEA’s ability to provide relief from the cognitive deficits associated with this severe psychiatric condition may significantly improve quality of life in these individuals.
The last few years have also yielded new pre-clinical data on DHEA’s neuroprotective, memory-enhancing effects. In one noteworthy study, DHEA significantly improved memory retention and consolidation in mice—especially when the experimental equivalent of an emotional stimulus was involved.12 This may be related to DHEA’s ability to stimulate the proliferation of key brain cell receptors specifically associated with memory processing.13
When given to aging rats, DHEA was shown to enhance brain cell utilization of ATP—the body’s fundamental energy-storage molecule—thereby protecting the cell membranes from age-related damage.14 Impaired energy utilization and reduced production of ATP contribute to the “neuronal energy crises” that underlie Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.15
A landmark 2007 study showed that DHEA supplementation of 150 mg twice daily improved memory recall and mood in healthy young men, specifically increasing activity in the hippocampus, the region of the brain most closely associated with mnemonic function (memory).5
Enhance Your Mood—Naturally
Depression often accompanies aging, frequently emerging in older individuals.16,17 Fortunately, we now recognize depression as an essentially physiological condition—one that can be treated. Low DHEA levels are known to render aging humans more vulnerable to depression in the presence of triggers such as rejection or isolation.18 Negative emotional stimuli have been shown to lower DHEA levels even further.19
Supplementation with DHEA can powerfully mitigate depression and its effects. A National Institute of Mental Health study of depressive men and women aged 45-65 years showed significant improvement over 6 weeks among those who took 90 mg of DHEA per day for 3 weeks and then 450 mg per day for 3 weeks, compared with placebo.7 The study also showed significant improvements in sexual functioning scores in supplemented patients, but not among control patients. In a rare admission from the generally conservative National Institute of Mental Health, their conclusion was, “We find DHEA to be an effective treatment for midlife-onset major and minor depression.”
In a set of studies, DHEA was found to improve both mood and energy while alleviating depression.20-22 Israeli researchers also demonstrated minimal effects on other hormonal profiles, alleviating concerns about adverse events with DHEA.23
A remarkable 2006 study demonstrated reduction in depressive symptoms in an especially challenging population—patients with HIV/AIDS.24
Several 2009 studies revealed associations of low DHEA levels with a number of neuropsychiatric conditions and were able to show that DHEA influences gene expression in the brain.25 For example, DHEA modulates expression of genes directly involved in appetite regulation, energy utilization, and alertness.26 Another study demonstrated that DHEA acted in synergy with the antidepressant fluoxetine (Prozac®), leading researchers to suggest DHEA as “a useful adjunct therapy for depression.”27
Support for Aging Bones and Joints
A 2000 study demonstrated improved bone turnover—more marked in women than in men—during a year-long study of daily 50 mg supplementation with DHEA.28 (Bone turnover is the natural process by which the body replaces old bone from the skeleton and replaces it with new bone.) By 2003, laboratory evidence emerged suggesting that DHEA could potentially enhance joint function and ward off osteoarthritis (OA).2
DHEA treatment of cartilage tissue taken from patients with OA increased production of healthy, flexible type II collagen protein, while reducing production of the less flexible type I collagen associated with scar formation.2 DHEA also modified the imbalance between cartilage-destroying enzymes and those that protect cartilage from damage. These impressive effects were the direct result of DHEA’s capacity to favorably modulate gene expression.
DHEA’s effects on bone structure are no less significant. A double-blind, randomized, controlled trial of 50 mg per day of DHEA administered orally versus placebo for 12 months showed improved hip bone mineral density (BMD) in older men and women with low DHEA-S levels, with additional improvements in spine BMD in women.3,29 A larger study in 2008 showed that DHEA not only improved lumbar spine BMD in women (not men) taking 50 mg per day for a year, but it also reduced blood-borne markers of bone resorption,30 an important measure of overall bone health and bone aging. Not surprisingly, the addition of vitamin D and calcium supplements to a DHEA regimen may afford further benefit.31
Optimal Immune Strength and Anti-Viral Protection
The precipitous age-related decline in DHEA/DHEA-S levels results in the immune deficiency we call immunosenescence.32 Supplementation with DHEA may beneficially modulate immunity33,34 to help combat debilitating age-related conditions through multiple, complementary pathways.
DHEA has boosted immune function in blood cells taken from patients after major abdominal surgery.35 This action may help to prevent serious infections and promote healing. In the setting of dangerous infections and trauma in laboratory animals, DHEA and its metabolites markedly upregulate host immune responses, modulate inflammation, and improve survival.36-38 In animal models, DHEA’s ability to raise sex hormone concentrations to youthful levels also promoted wound healing.39
DHEA also possesses significant antiviral properties. It has blocked replication of several different, potentially deadly virus families in the laboratory—more effectively and more selectively than the drug ribavirin!40,41
A 2008 study showed that DHEA also increases natural resistance to certain lethal parasites, including Trypanosma cruzi (the cause of Chagas disease),42 a microorganism that causes death from heart disease and brain damage, particularly in immunocompromised patients. Subsequent research conducted in 2009 found that DHEA supplementation reduced parasite levels, raised levels of defensive macrophage white blood cells, and increased levels of immune signalling interferons.43,44
Among individuals stricken with autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, treatment with conventional corticosteroids not only over-suppresses the immune system, it can also promote bone resorption and catastrophic fractures. DHEA has been shown to reduce expression of cytokines and other factors that lead to bone resorption in steroid-treated tissue, while still suppressing inflammation effectively.45
There’s good news for asthma and allergy patients who respond poorly to regular steroid usage as well. DHEA is now known to suppress allergy-induced inflammatory cytokines in reactive airway cells while increasing the ratio of beneficial interferon to inflammatory cytokines—highly significant advances in the management of this troubling condition.46