Many hormonal changes take place with ageing, but none is as marked as what happens to DHEA levels. These start to fall from as early as age 30, and really accelerate after 60 so that, by age 70, the average person retains only 20 per cent of what he had in his youth. By age 80, this will have dropped even further to only 10 per cent.
DHEA loss in men has been likened to the menopause in women, which also involves substantial losses of specific female hormones. Although the hormone loss is less dramatic in men than in women, could it nevertheless be the cause of a so-called male menopause? Certainly, lower levels of DHEA are believed to be responsible for the loss of bone and muscle strength, a reduced sex drive, osteoporosis (bone-thinning), increased abdominal fat, incontinence, a decline in mental functioning, depression and a reduced quality of life (Minerva Ginecol, 2006; 58: 153-70).
What is DHEA?
Dehydroepiandrosterone is the most abundant hormone in the body. It is a natural steroid hormone from which the body makes its male and female sex hormones. It is mostly produced by the adrenal glands although, in men, about 25 per cent of it is made in the testes. DHEA can cross the blood-brain barrier, and so may affect brain cells. Natural DHEA levels are highest in the morning.
Exercise is a good way to naturally raise DHEA levels in the body (J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci, 2002; 57: B158-65), whereas certain prescription drugs, such as insulin, corticosteroids, opiates and danazol, can lower them.
DHEA dosage and safety
Most of the positive clinical trials with DHEA used a dosage of 50 mg/day, rising to as much as 450 mg/day. However, some practitioners use far less than this, having found that, in practice, patients may get better on as little as 10 mg/day.
DHEA is widely available without a prescription, causing doctors to voice fears as to its safety, although the research thus far has found no significant side-effects.
Nevertheless, there is a theoretical concern that DHEA may, in some circumstances, be carcinogenic. Because the hormone raises oestrogen and testosterone levels, anyone with a history of breast or prostate cancer is advised not to take it (Ann NY Acad Sci, 2004; 1028: 216-32).