DHEA may not boost brain power, well-being

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - The hormone supplement DHEA is touted as an anti-aging panacea, but a new study suggests that it does nothing for healthy older adults’ brain power or general well-being.

DHEA, or dehydroepiandrosterone, is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands that is converted into other steroid hormones, including testosterone and estrogen. People’s levels of DHEA naturally peak during their 20s, then taper off as they age. Because of this, over-the-counter synthetic DHEA supplements are marketed as a weapon against the effects of aging.

Studies have come to mixed conclusions as to whether the supplements do in fact improve cognitive function, well-being, libido and depression symptoms in older adults.

Most of those trials were small or short-term, however. This latest study, reported in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, included 235 older adults who were randomly assigned to take DHEA or a placebo every day for one year.

By the year’s end, the researchers found no clear differences between the two groups in tests of memory and other cognitive abilities. Nor did DHEA seem to benefit participants’ general well-being and quality of life -- as measured by standard questionnaires on depression symptoms, life satisfaction, sexual function and general physical and mental health.

The bottom line is that healthy older adults should not turn to DHEA for the purpose of improving their cognitive function or overall well-being, lead researcher Dr. Donna Kritz-Silverstein told Reuters Health.

Whether the hormone supplement might be useful for other purposes, like treating depression or cognitive impairment, is not answered by this study, according to Kritz-Silverstein and colleagues at the University of California San Diego.

It’s also unclear whether DHEA might be more effective in older adults who have particularly low natural levels. However, Kritz-Silverstein pointed out that declining DHEA levels are part of the normal aging process.

What’s more, supplement users in her study saw their initial DHEA levels rise by two to four times. Despite this restoration of “youthful” levels, Kritz-Silverstein noted, there were no improvements in cognitive function or well-being.

SOURCE: Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, July 2008.