DHEA: Evidence for anti-aging claims is weak
Date Updated: 10/11/2022
DHEA is often advertised as an anti-aging therapy, used to ward off chronic illness and improve physical performance. Most research doesn't back up these claims. Here's what you need to know about DHEA.
What is DHEA?
Your body's adrenal gland makes the hormone DHEA — the technical word for it is dehydroepiandrosterone. DHEA helps the body make other hormones, including testosterone and estrogen.
Manufactured versions of DHEA are available as a tablet, capsule and powder, as well as in creams and gels placed on the skin. DHEA is sold as a dietary supplement in the United States. Studies have shown quality control of the supplement to often be low.
What does DHEA have to do with aging?
Natural DHEA levels peak in early adulthood and then slowly fall as you age. In theory, taking DHEA supplements to maintain DHEA levels could slow the aging process, possibly improving well-being, cognitive function and body composition. But research hasn't proved that to be true.
Some research suggests that DHEA might improve vaginal dryness in postmenopausal women. The supplement also might improve bone mineral density in older adults with low DHEA. But improvements in bone density were small compared with those seen after treatment with approved osteoporosis medicine. Research on the effects of DHEA on well-being and body composition has had mixed results. Most studies find no effect of DHEA on cognitive function or on muscle size or strength.
DHEA may eventually prove to have benefits in treating people diagnosed with certain conditions, such as adrenal insufficiency and lupus. But further studies are needed.
What are the side effects of DHEA?
The long-term safety of DHEA use is not known.
There are concerns that using DHEA as a supplement might increase the risk of cardiovascular problems, such as:
- Irregular heartbeat
- Chest pain
- Heart palpitations
- High blood pressure
- Reduced high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good," cholesterol levels
- Increased triglycerides — a type of fat found in blood
DHEA use may increase the risk of some cancers, including prostate, breast, liver and pancreatic cancers. It also might make some hormone-sensitive cancers worse, including breast, uterine and ovarian cancers. The same is true for other hormone-sensitive conditions, such as uterine fibroids and endometriosis.
Taking a DHEA supplement might increase levels of male hormones called androgens. This may be unsafe for some people, particularly pregnant people and nursing infants.
DHEA has been linked to:
- Mood changes
In women, side effects may include:
- Oily skin
- Male-pattern baldness
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Reduced breast size
- Increased size of genitals
In men, side effects may include:
- Breast tenderness or enlargement
- Urinary problems
- Decreased size of testicles
The National Collegiate Athletic Association, the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency have all banned DHEA use among athletes.
Supplements such as DHEA can cause serious side effects when mixed with prescription or nonprescription medicine.
What do you tell people who want to try DHEA?
DHEA supplementation doesn't have proven benefits as an anti-aging therapy, and it might lead to harmful side effects.
If you're looking for ways to promote healthy aging, there's no substitute for healthy lifestyle choices that create a solid foundation for good health. That includes fundamentals such as good nutrition, daily exercise, a daily mind-body practice, good sleep hygiene, social connectedness and spirituality.